The Gupta Empire

Last Update: June 2023 (The Gupta Empire)

The Gupta Empire

This article deals with ‘The Gupta Empire ’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.


Numerous small kingdoms rose and collapsed after the fall of the Mauryan empire. Finally, the Gupta Dynasty became a major political force and successfully brought about the political unity of much of the Indian subcontinent between 300 and 700 CE. 

Sources for Gupta Period

1. Inscriptions

  • Stone & Copper Plate Inscriptions: Imperial Guptas & contemporary dynasties like Vakatakas, Kadambas & Hunas issued various stone and copper plate inscriptions providing useful information about the polity, economy and society of the region. 
  • Prasastis: E.g., Allahabad Prasasti describes the personality and achievements of Emperor Samudragupta in 33 lines composed by Harisena and engraved in Sanskrit & Nagari script.
  • Royal Land Grant Charters: Provides information about administrative structure & agrarian relations 

2. Coins & Seals

Guptas issued a large number of gold coins called Dinaras, which have the name of kings, metrical legends & images of deities on them.

Coins & Seals of the Guptas

3. Literature

  • During this period, Sanskrit entirely replaced Prakrit as the court language.
  • Epics & major Puranas were given final shape during this period. 
  • Smritis belonging to this time include
    1. Narada Smriti
    2. Vishnu Smriti
    3. Brihaspati Smriti 
    4. Katyayana Smriti
  • Kamandaka’s Nitisara: Written during Gupta Age, it is a work on polity addressed to King (like Arthashastra during Mauryas).  

Other Books

Kamasutra Written by Vātsyāyana
Amarakosha (a lexicon) Sanskrit lexicon compiled by the ancient Indian scholar Amarasimha
Devi Chandragupta Drama written by Visakhadatta
Silapadikaram & Manimekalai Source of South Indian History

4. Mrichchhakatikam

  • Sudraka wrote Mrichchhakatikam (the clay cart). 
  • It is a social drama. The story follows the love affair between Charudatta, a poor Brahmin, and Vasantasena, a wealthy courtesan, involving political intrigues and social satire.
  • Characters in the drama were drawn from all strata of society- thieves, gamblers, rogues, police constables, politicians etc.
  • It shows various aspects of city life during the Gupta period.

5. Buddhist Accounts- Faxian

  • From the 3rd to 8th century, many Chinese monks travelled to India – to collect Buddhist texts, visit Buddhist pilgrimages etc. 
  • Three primary records have survived in entirety – Faxian, Xuanzang & Yijang.
  • Many Indian monks also travelled to China, but their accounts haven’t survived.

Faxian or Fa-Hien

  • Faxian travelled to India during the period 399 – 411 AD.
  • He wrote an account of his travels in a book titled ‘Gaoseng Faxian Zhaun’ (Record of Buddhist Kingdoms).
  • Although his book didn’t mention who was the reigning King (who must be Chandragupta II), it contained several observations about the life of people (some erroneous and others useful). 

About Political System

  • Faxian tells about a region south of Mathura called the Middle Kingdom (Malwa)
    • The region was a stronghold of Brahmanism. 
    • The government was efficient & people were happy. 
    • People don’t have to register their households. 
  • Only those who cultivate royal land have to pay a portion of their grain as tax.
  • King ruled without corporal punishments. Criminals were simply fined high or low. Even in case of repeated attempts at rebellion, only their right hands were cut off. 
  • Kings, elders & gentry build shrines and gave lands.  
  • Royal officers were paid fixed salaries.  

About Social Life

  • People didn’t kill any living creature nor drink intoxicating liquor, except Chandalas. 
  • Chandalas lived separately, and their contact was considered polluting. 
  • Numerous charitable institutions were built by wealthy people. For example
    • shelter for travellers and wandering monks     
    • free hospitals for poor patients, & cripples 
  • He didn’t comment on SATI. Sati was commented upon by travellers like Ibn Battuta, Bernier etc. It may be considered that it was not practised on a larger scale.  

About Religion & Religious life

  • Rooms with beds & mattresses, food and cloth were provided to residents and travelling monks. Monks only spend their time in meditation & reciting scriptures.
  • Pagodas were built in honour of Sariputta & Ananda.   
  • Pious families made offerings to monks. Kings endowed Monasteries with fields, gardens & cattle. 
  • During the months after the rain rest, the pious collect a united offering for the priesthood and priests, in turn, hold a great assembly and preach the law.

About Towns and Cities

  • Faxian was impressed by the city of Pataliputra & also by  Ashoka Palace with its various halls, which according to him, were built by spirits. It shows Ashoka’s palace was still in existence.  
  • Faxian saw two monasteries, one occupied by followers of the Mahayana school & other by Hinayana. Faxian spent three years studying Sanskrit there. 
  • Faxian tells about 
    • The city of Gaya, which was empty and desolate. 
    • The holy places of Bodhgaya were surrounded by jungle
    • Only 200 families lived in Sravasti.

The above instances show signs of Urban decay in some places.

Using Faxian’s Accounts as a Source

  • The main aim of pilgrims like Faxian was to provide Buddhists in China an opportunity to visualise places connected to Buddha’s life. Hence, references to details concerning the lifestyle of Indians are few & cursory.
  • Faxian present an idyllic & idealised picture of society in the 5th century. Many things written about taxes and punishment were incorrect. Faxian wrote some observations because he wanted Chinese rulers to follow those things in China. 

6. Western Accounts

  • Examples of Western accounts include Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Christian Topography written in the 6th century.     
  • The author was a merchant who travelled India before becoming a monk.
  • The book mentions Christians in India & Sri Lanka and well developed Horse Trade. 

7. Archaeological Sources

  • Gupta sites like Purana Qila, Ahichchhatra, Basarh, Bhita & Kaveripattinam provide essential data to reconstruct the history of that period.

Debate: Origin of Guptas

Different scholars suggest different ancestry of the Guptas.


  • The suffix ‘Gupta’ in their name suggests the Vaishya lineage of the Guptas. 


  • Guptas had a matrimonial alliance with Lichchhavis & Nagas (both Kshatriyas)
  • Further, the marriage of Prabhavati Gupta with Brahmin Vakatakas falls within the Dharmashastra norm of Anuloma marriage. 


  • The marriage of the Brahmin Kadamba family with the Gupta kings points towards the fact that Guptas were Brahmins.
  • Inscription of Prabhavatigupta describes herself as belonging to Dharana gotra. Since Vakatakas were Vishnuvriddha, Dharana was the gotra of the Gupta dynasty. 

Gupta Rulers

1. Srigupta

  • Srigupta founded the Gupta Dynasty.

2. Ghatokacha

  • Ghatokacha succeeded Srigupta.

3. Chandragupta I

  • Chandragupta I was the first independent Gupta King with the title Maharajadhiraja. 
  • He increased his power with the help of a matrimonial alliance with the Lichchhavis (known through coins => Chandragupta & Kumaradevi were engraved on the coin with the legend Lichchhavayah (i.e. the Lichchhavis).)
Chandragupta I coins
  • Chandragupta I started a new era from 319-320 A.D known as Gupta Era. 

4. Samudragupta

The primary source of Information about Samudragupta’s reign is Prayaga Prasasti, composed by Harisena (who was an important official). Samudragupta is described as Lichchhavi Dauhitra in the Prayaga Prasasti. 

The Kacha Controversy

The coins with the name KACHA have generated controversy. 

  • Kacha’s coins are similar to that of Samudragupta’s coins. But the name Kacha does not appear in official lists of Gupta rulers. 

Various interpretations have been provided regarding this. 

  • 1st Interpretation: Samudragupta’s brothers revolted & placed Kacha, the eldest brother, on the throne. But Kacha died in the war. 
  • 2nd Interpretation: Samudragupta issued these coins in memory of his brother. 
  • 3rd Interpretation: Kacha was the initial name of Samudragupta. The name ‘Samudragupta’ was adopted after the conquest of the South.

Expansion & Consolidation

The Gupta Empire
  • Samudragupta was a great conqueror like Mahapadmananda & Chandragupta Maurya and aimed at the political unification of India.
  • He followed an aggressive and multifaceted expansion policy consisting of
    1. Battles & Wars 
    2. Matrimonial Alliances
  • From Allahabad Pillar, we get the following information about the expansion.

Campaigns in Aryavarta

  • According to Prayaga Prasasti, Samudragupta undertook 12 campaigns in Aryavarta. 

Campaigns in South

  • Prayagaprashasti mentions 12 rulers from Dakshinapatha or south India who were defeated by Samudragupta, like Hastivarman of Vengi (in the Krishna-Godavari delta).
  • According to Prayaga Prasasti, Samudragupta treated the Dakshinapatha rulers favourably by first capturing them (grahana) and then releasing them (moksha). Samudragupta realised the practical problem of controlling the southern rulers. Hence, defeated rulers were allowed to rule in return for acknowledging their suzerainty & periodic tributes.

Self Surrender by other rulers

  • Other rulers pleased him by self-surrender, offering (their own) daughters in marriage & accepting the suzerainty of Samudragupta. Later Kushanas, Sakas and the ruler of Sri Lanka were included in this category.

Control over Oversea Colonies

  • It is possible that Samudragupta exercised some control over the Hindu colonies in the Malay Peninsula, Java, and Sumatra (hence, the name Samudragupta)

He celebrated all his victories with the performance of Ashvamedha Yajana. 

Side Topic: Allahabad Prasasti 

  • Allahabad Prasasti was composed by Harisena consisting of 33 lines inscribed on the pre-existing Ashokan pillar.  
  • He used highly sophisticated ornate Sanskrit, suggesting it was meant for elite consumption.
  • Samudragupta emerges as RESTLESS CONQUEROR in Prasasti. It tells about the expansion of the Gupta Empire by Samudragupta (as mentioned above – 12 wins in Aryavarta & 12 in Dakshinapatha) 
  • Curiously, he chose a pillar carrying the Pillar Edicts of Ashoka, suggesting either that he was claiming some historical continuity or, if earlier inscriptions could be read, taking a contrary stand to the views of Ashoka. Although the Mauryan king controlled far more territory, yet was modest in his claims to power.  
  • But Samudragupta’s military successes were just one aspect of Harisena’s portrait of the King. He is described as 
    • An able, compassionate ruler concerned with the welfare of his subjects 
    • He is described as having put to shame the Brihaspati with his sharp intellect and Tumburu & Narada with musical performances.
    • Kaviraja (King among poets ), whose poetry surpassed the glory of genius poets 

Coins of Samudragupta

  • The coins of Samudragupta represent him in various poses suggesting his prowess & martial skills. These include 
    1. Archer-type Coin: Holding bow in one & arrow in the other hand 
    2. Tiger-slayer-type Coin: Trampling & killing a tiger  
    3. Lyricist-type Coin  
  • Ashvamedha/Yupa Type of coins suggests that he performed Ashvamedha Yajanas proclaiming suzerainty over large areas.  
  • Legends on Samudragupta’s coins include various epithets such as
    • Parakramah (brave)
    • Ashvamedha – Parakramah (performer of Ashvamedha) 
    • Vyagra – Parakramah (brave as tiger)  
Coins of Samudragupta

5. Chandragupta II / Chandragupta Vikramaditya

Sources for Chandragupta II

  • King Chandra’s exploits are mentioned in Mehrauli Iron Pillar Inscription (currently situated in the Qutab-Minar complex). Chandra is believed to be Chandragupta 2
  • He is identified as the hero of Kalidasa’s Raghuvamasa.  
  • Account of Fa-Hien (Faxian)  (although he did not mention the name of the king, which without a doubt was Chandragupta II) 
  • Coins like the Lion Slayer Type Coin of Chandragupta II.
Chandragupta II / Chandragupta Vikramaditya coins

Ramagupta Controversy

Gupta inscriptions mention Chandragupta II as Samudragupta’s successor, but based on literary sources, some copper coins and inscriptions, the successor was Samudragupta’s other son Ramagupta. 

  • Visakhadatta’s drama Devi Chandraguptam mentions that Chandragupta-II killed his elder brother Ramagupta because Ramagupta was facing defeat by Sakas and agreed to surrender his wife (Queen Dhruvadevi) to Saka king. Hence, he killed Ramagupta & married Dhruvadevi.
  • Sanjan Plates of Rashtrakuta king Amoghavarsha I  also narrate the above story. 
  • The same story was enumerated in the Persian work by Abdul Hussain Ali in 1226.  

But there is much criticism of this theory as this tradition found its way from the 9th century with no evidence before that.

  • It is hard to agree that the ruler of the mighty Gupta Empire was so weak that Sakas defeated him in such a way that he had to surrender his wife. The code of honour of the Guptas was much higher than even later Hindus when women performed Johar. Hence, it is suggested that Rama Gupta was a local ruler who was subjugated by the Saka King of Ujjain. That Saka king was killed by Chandragupta II. There is nothing to show that Rama Gupta was the elder brother of Chandragupta II   
  • According to Romila Thapar, the heroic tenor of the story may have been an attempt to hide an unsavoury event of killing his brother, which is often the case in courtly literature

It is rightly pointed out that while the story of Rama Gupta can’t be dismissed as a figment of imagination, we can’t also accept it as a historical fact. 

Matrimonial Alliances 

  • Matrimonial alliances with the Nagas: Chandragupta II married Princess Kuberanaga. 
  • Chandragupta II married his daughter Prabhavati to Vakataka ruler Rudrasena II.

Sakas Subjugated

He defeated the Saka king Rudrasimha-III and annexed his kingdom ending Saka Kshatrapa rule. Conquest is proven by

  • No Saka coins were minted after this period 
  • Guptas started minting Saka-type silver coins for this region => just the symbol changed; the rest remaining the same

Title of Vikramaditya

  • Chandragupta II took the title of Vikramaditya/’ sun of prowess’ and has therefore been linked with the legendary king of that name, associated with a strong sense of justice. 

6. Kumargupta  I

  • Kumaragupta I succeeded his father, Chandragupta II. 
  • He performed Ashvamedha Yajana. 
  • The primary source of information include coins, inscriptions & literary sources. 
    • His coins have representations of Kartikeya.
    • Mandsor Stone Inscription (436 A.D.) mentions Kumaragupta as ruler of the whole earth.

Hunas Invasion started

Towards the last years of his reign, they faced a foreign invasion of Ye-Tha/ Hepthalites (White Huns), which was checked by the efforts of his son Skandagupta. 

7. Skandagupta

Skandagupta was the last powerful Gupta monarch.

Hunas weakened the Gupta Empire

  • Huna invasions intensified during Skandagupta’s reign. Although he successfully threw them back, wars adversely affected the economy, as shown by the deterioration of gold coinage (coins had less gold than earlier coins).

Junagarh Inscription

  • During Skandagupta’s reign, Sudarsana Lake (built initially during the Maurya period) burst due to excessive rains. Hence, governor Pranadatta got it repaired. It indicates that the state undertook the task of public works.

Later Gupta Rulers

  • Skandagupta might not have been the rightful heir to the Gupta throne and therefore had to fight with other contenders (a seal inscription traces a line of Gupta rulers after Kumaragupta-I to his son Purugupta and not Skandagupta)
  • Guptas continued to rule till about 550 A.D., but by then, their power had already become very insignificant. 

Administration under Guptas

  • Guptas followed the policy of administrative decentralization. Defeated rulers were subjugated but were not incorporated. They were allowed to function independently in return for tribute.
  • But in areas under direct Gupta control, there was an elaborate administrative system  

Role of King

  • King remained a central figure in the whole administrative setup and embodiment of all powers. The Gupta ruler was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the Supreme Judge, and the owner of all land. 
  • Kings were projected as divine. For instance, Samudragupta is considered equal to Kubera, Varuna, Indra etc., in Allahabad Prasasti.
  • But in practice, the Gupta kings were not absolute despots. Various checks in the form of Brahmins, Vassals, Corporate bodies and Shastras were present. 

Council of Ministers

  • Allahabad Prasasti refers to the Sabha or Council of Ministers. But Inscriptions are not clear about the hierarchy of ministers.  
  • King used to consult his Ministers having various designations like Mantrin, Amatya, Kumaramatya etc.
  • Kumaramatya seems to be eminent among Amatyas & equivalent in status to princes of royal blood.  
  • Minister’s office was perhaps hereditary. E.g., Composer of Allahabad Prasasti, Harisena, a Mahadandanayaka was the son of Mahadandanayaka. 

Gupta Army

  • There must be an enormous army organization to control such a vast empire.
  • Gupta Kings maintained a standing army that was supplemented by the Army of Vassals
  • During Gupta times, Cavalry rose to prominence & Archery became important.
  • King was de-jure head of the Army. But a minister called ‘Sandhi-Vigrahika’ (Minister of Peace and War) was in charge of the Army. A group of high officials helped him.
Pilupati Head of Elephants
Asvapati Head of Horses
Narapati Head of Footsoldiers
  • Ranabhandagarika‘ or ‘Incharge of Stores‘ looked after the needs of soldiers. 

Other Officials

Elaborate & methodical bureaucratic structure was absent due to the presence of 

  • Feudatories 
  • Involvement of professional bodies in administration (explained later in article)
  • The state was indifferent towards the regulation of economic activities.

But important Officials were present. 

Justice Department

  • Although supreme judicial powers were vested in the King, Mahadandanayaka acted as the Chief Justice and he also assisted the King in delivering justice. 
  • In Provinces, Uparikas and in Districts, Vishayapatis were responsible for dispensing the justice. 
  • In villages, headman and village elders used to decide the petty cases. 
  • Further, Chinese traveller Fa-Hien stated that capital punishment was not given at all. 


  • Maha-Pratihara was the chief of the palace guards.
  • He regulated ceremonies and granted the necessary permits for admission to the royal presence. 

Espionage system

  • In Gupta Empire, there was an elaborate Espionage System (which was a continuation of the earlier period)


  • Land grant inscriptions often mention Dutakas 
  • Dutakas were probably associated with the task of land grants to Brahmanas and others.

Governance in Provinces

  • The Gupta Empire was divided into Rashtras (provinces), which were further divided into Vishayas (Districts) 
  • Rashtras were governed by Uparikas/Kumaraamtyas directly appointed by the King.

Governance in Districts

  • Vishayas were administered by an official called Vishayapatis. They were appointed by the Provincial governor. 
  • Some districts were also governed by Samantas/Feudatories. 
  • Pustapalas-officials whose work was to manage and keep records
  • Representation of Major Local Bodies was an essential aspect of district administration. Heads of Local Bodies were taken in District Council. These include 
    • Nagarsethi (Head of City Merchants)
    • Sarthavaha (Representative of Guild of Merchants)
    • Pratham Kayastha (Head of Scribes)
    • Pratham Kulika (head of artisan community)

Village Governance

  • During village governance, the villages assumed greater autonomy. 
  • Headman, called Gramapati or Gramadhayaksha, managed affairs with the help of elders (called Gramavriddhas)

Urban Governance

  • Representation of Local Bodies was the characteristic feature of Urban Governance.
  • Each city had a council consisting of 
    • Nagarsethi 
    • Sarthavaha  
    • Prathama Kulika 
    • Prathama Kayastha  
  • This council was different than described by Megasthenes 
    • In Maurya Empire, Members of the City Council were appointed by the government 
    • In Gupta Empire, the council consisted of local representatives, among whom commercial interests often predominated

Economy under Guptas

1. Agriculture during Gupta Empire

Agriculture Expansion

  • Agriculture expansion continued during Gupta Empire. Forest lands were cleared & brought under cultivation. 
  • But there was a difference between Mauryas and Guptas in Agriculture Expansion.
    • Mauryas:  Agriculture expansion was through State intervention
    • Guptas: Gupta Kings gave land grants to individuals who were expected to act as catalysts 
  • Using Land Grants, Peripheral areas could be brought into the agrarian economy. Initial grants tended not to be in the Ganges heartland but in the regions beyond. (Although the granting of land was at first marginal, by about the eighth century AD, it had expanded)

Agriculture Taxes

Agriculture taxes were the main financial source of the Gupta Empire. But there is a problem in interpreting the precise meaning of some of the fiscal terms. 

Main agricultural taxes during the Gupta period included

Bhaga Bhaga was the King’s grain share. According to Narada Smriti, it was 1/6th of agricultural produce. But 1/6th seems to be a conventional figure. 
Bhoga It was the supplies of fruit, timber, flowers etc. that villagers were obliged to give to King.
Kara Kara was the generic term used for taxes 
Upari-Kara The tax imposed on farmers without any proprietary rights  
Udranga The exact meaning of tax is uncertain. It might be police tax levied for maintenance of the local police station
Hiranya Hiranya is the king’s share in agricultural produce in cash 


  • Various types of waterworks used for irrigation, like wells, canals, tanks & embankments, are mentioned in texts. 
  • The role of the state in building & maintaining some of these is indicated in Junahgarh inscriptions.
  • Ghati Yantra / Araghatta was the method to draw water from wells for irrigation (tie a number of pots (= ghati) to a chain and rotate the chain to ensure that the pots would continuously fill with water and empty it.)

Royal Land Grants

  • Agrahara/Brahmadeya System started during this period. It means donation of revenue-free plots in favour of Brahmans or religious institutions (Temples, Buddhist Vihara or Jaina Monastery) by the royal class or ordinary people under Copper Plate charters with Royal Consent (.ie generally made by the ruling class but can also be made by ordinary people with royal consent)
  • The earliest inscription recording land grants & privileges were Naneghat & Nashik (by Satavahanas and Sakas). Imperial Guptas were not big donors. Only one inscription recording land grant, i.e. Bhitari Pillar inscription of Skandagupta in favour of Vishnu temple. But Vakatakas were great donees of land to Brahmanas. A total of 35 villages were donated & greatest during the reign of Parvasena II (he made 20 land grants). 
  • Later, there was an increase in the 4th century as by then the number of ruling families had vastly increased. 

2. Crafts and Guilds during Gupta Age

Craft production , Guilds & Trade

There are abundant inscriptions & seals mentioning artisans, merchants & guilds, which suggest thriving urban craft.

Crafts prevalent during Gupta Age were

Metal Works

  • Metalworking is listed in Kamasutra as one of 64 kalas (arts).
  • Mehrauli Pillar (of Chandra Gupta II) reflects a high level of metallurgical skill.  
  • Sultanganj Buddha was also crafted during this period.

Textile Works

  • Amarakosha mentions several words connected with cotton textile. 
  • Ajanta paintings depict elaborate garments.


  • Guilds were a feature of the Indian economy since early times & continued to be so in the Gupta age as well. 
  • Guilds were also responsible for City Administration (explained above)
  • Guilds in the Gupta period issued their hundis and probably even coins. It might be one reason why the Gupta rulers didn’t issue copper coins. 
  • Guilds had their seals & military arrangements for protecting their merchandise. 

3. Trade

The security offered by the strong Gupta Rule facilitated the easy movement of men and merchandise. Faxian was very much impressed by the freedom of movement.

Internal Trade

  • Internal trade was carried on by both land and rivers.
  • The state arranged security for travellers and traders. 
  • The campaigns of Samudra Gupta improved the means of communication, which facilitated trade.
  • There were references to Nauyoga (a boat parking station) in inscriptions from Bihar & Bengal, suggesting riverine transportation of goods.  

External Trade

  • Red Sea trade declined due to the fall of the Roman Empire. But there was simultaneous activation of the Persian Sea trade route due to impetus provided by the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires.
  • Cosmos, in his accounts, mentions various ports on the western coast like Calliena (Kalyan), Sibor (Chaul) etc.
  • Faxian refers to the port of Tamralipti in Bengal. 
  • Overland routes present too used by Caravan Traders. 
  • Silk Trade with China continued. Kalidasa refers to rich people wearing garments made of Chinamshuka. 
  • There was an appreciable rise in the import of horses (as in Gupta Army, the importance of the Cavalry was high), coming overland from Iran and Bactria & from Arabia by sea to the western coast.  

4. Money Economy

  • RS Sharma has argued that Gupta & Post-Gupta periods saw a decline in the money economy because Gupta issued many gold coins but comparatively few Silver & Copper coins.  
  • Most of the Gupta rulers issued only gold coins. Chandragupta II issued silver coins for the first time & copper coins were first issued by Kumaragupta. As pointed out earlier, the reason for not issuing copper coins might be copper coins were issued by Guilds. 
  • Money lending was present. Narada Smriti mentions that person will be born as a slave in the house of his creditor to pay off the debt.  

Urban Decay Debate

There is a debate among historians that the historic towns & cities that had developed during the second phase of Indian Urbanization between the 6th Century BC and 4th Century AD appeared to have lost their vitality & importance from the Gupta period. It was a phase of Urban Decay and village sufficiency. 

The main proponent of this theory is RS Sharma. He gave the following reasons to back his proposition 

  • Archaeological evidence point towards urban decline. 
  • A gloomy prophecy made in Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita that various towns will fall on evil days, Valmiki Ramayana’s description of Ayodhya after Rama’s exile, & picture of the city’s desolation in Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha
  • Faxian’s account depicting the desolation of Bodhgaya, Gaya, Kusinagara etc 

The main role played in this was the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent decline in long-distance trade  

But there are counterarguments.

  • Historians are divided, arguing that the volume of Roman Trade was never so great as imagined by early historians  
  • Red Sea trade declined due to the fall of the Roman Empire, but there was simultaneous activation of the Persian sea trade route due to impetus by the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires.
  • Mrichchhakatika gives a vivid description of heroine Vasantasena’s magnificent house in Ujjayini & magnificent city life
  • Descriptions of the wealthy, educated, and sophisticated man referred to in the Kamasutra  

Conclusion: Some of the earlier cities, like Ujjain, Mathura, and Varanasi, showed signs of decay and less revenue generation. But other cities were coming up. Trade was changing its dimension. Hence, some cities showed decay, but to take their place and to make good the loss due to them, other cities came up 

Social Aspects

1. Varna System

  • Varna distinctions became very pronounced. For instance, people belonging to different castes were charged different rates of interest. 
  • Varna system was considerably modified due to various economic and political factors. For instance,
    • Kshatriya caste swelled up with the influx of Hunas & Gurjars. (Kshatriyastion of various castes)
    • The number of Shudras increased due to the absorption of forest tribes in Varna society as Peasants. (Peasantisation of Tribes)
    • The proliferation of Jatis:  Guilds of craftsmen were transformed into Jatis.
  • But it is evident from the inscriptions of this period that some degree of mobility among jatis was accepted. For instance, the guild of silk weavers moved from Lata in western India to Mandasor (Madhya Pradesh) when they could no longer maintain themselves through the production of silk. Some of them adopted professions of a higher caste than their original ones, such as archers, soldiers, bards and scholars. Despite the change of profession, loyalty to the original guild remained for at least one generation. Being sun-worshippers, they financed the building of a temple to Surya & mentioned in an inscription dated to AD 436. 

2. Position of Women

The position of women declined. According to Smritis and Inscriptions

  • Girls were not allowed to perform ‘Upanayana Samskara’ & pursue Vedic Studies. 
  • Early marriage for women, i.e. marriage before puberty, was recommended
  • Intercaste marriage was disapproved  
  • Women were denied any right to the property except Stridhana
  • Women were considered property which could be lent or loaned to any other person at the pleasure of her husband.
  •  A widow should lead celibate & austere lifeBrihaspati Smriti offers an alternative that she burns herself on her husband’s funeral pyre   (the first inscription mentioning Sati belongs to this period, dated 510 AD from MP) 

But Sources present different pictures wrt Royal women

  • Royal women are visible on coins & seals. For instancethe King & Queen type of coins of Chandragupta I & Kumaradevi
  • Matrimonial alliances were an important part of politics. Gupta, Vakatakas, Nagas etc used it
  • Some royal household women took the initiative in gift-giving. Prabhavati Gupta made grants in her own right 
  • Kamasutra suggests polygyny was also prevalent among the royal & non- royal elite.

Ganikas & Prostitutes

  • Kamasutra mention Ganikas (i.e. prostitute of nobles). Ganika was admired & celebrated for her beauty, but at the same time, due to fact that anyone for money could buy her sexual favours meant that she could never hope to attain social respectability 
  • The position of the ordinary prostitute was miserable as she was devoid of the glamour & wealth associated with Ganika. 
  • Epitome of Ganika is Vasantasena in Mricchakatikam

3. Slavery

  • Narada Smriti has a detailed discussion on slavery & mentions 15 types of slaves, including war captives, debt enslavement & voluntary enslavement
  • A child born of a woman slave in a master’s house was considered a slave as well
  • Slaves can be pledged or mortgaged   
  • The ceremony of manumission is mentioned in Smritis, with which the master could free slaves. 

4. Untouchability

  • The practice of untouchability became more intense  
  • According to Faxian – Chandalas had to live outside the towns & marketplaces and were expected to strike pieces of timber when they approached so that others could get out of their way to avoid their presence. 

Reasons for the disintegration of the Gupta Empire

Huna Attacks 

  • Huna attacks started during Kumaragupta’s reign but were repulsed at that time.
  • However, by the end of the 5th century A.D., Huna chief Toramana established his authority over large parts of Central and western India, further extended by his son Mihirakula. The continuous Huna attacks shook the Gupta Empire. 

Administrative weaknesses/ Samanta System

  • Gupta rulers allowed the defeated rulers to rule once they accepted the suzerainty of the Guptas. When Gupta Empire weakened, the subdued Local Rulers asserted their independence. 

Land Grants 

  • It has been argued that the Guptas issued land grants to the Brahamana donees and surrendered the revenue and administrative rights in favour of the donees.

Gupta Period: Golden Age of Ancient India-Reality or Myth ?

Nationalist historians called this age as Golden Age (i.e. age when every manifestation of life reaches a peak of excellence). They tried to prove this using political centralisation, high-quality literature, sculpture & architecture. Apart from the elite, ordinary people were materially well off, with little to complain about. 

Arguments in favour 

  • Foreign rule was completely removed, and peace and prosperity prevailed (According to HC Raychaudary)
  •  The enlightened character of the government, i.e. taxes were light, punishment mild, etc. (according to Faxian accounts) 
  • Revival of Hinduism, but all other religions were tolerant.
  • The use of Sanskrit developed, and art and literature flourished during the period
  • Great personalities like Kalidasa, Amarsimha, Dhanavantri, Ayabhatta, Varahamihira etc., lived during this period
  • Temple forms and cave architecture of the highest merit developed.

But in the 1960s & 70s, Marxist Historians refuted this claim. They studied the socio-economic structures and concluded that the main features of feudalism were present, which intensified in subsequent centuries.

Arguments against

  • Existence of too many feudatories
  • Absence of a large Central Bureaucracy 
  • Development of Feudal elements (like Increasing land grants, Serfdom, Sub infeudation etc.) 
  • Decline in trade   
  • Decline of urban centres 
  •  Increasing Varna distinction and social disorder.
  •  The decline in the status of women.

Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD

Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD

This article deals with  Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.

Silk Route

Trade and Commerce from 200 BC to 300 AD
  • Silk Route extended was 4,350 km long stretching from Lo-yang on Hwang – He in China to Cteisiphon on Tigris in West Asia.
  • There was flourishing long-distance trade during this period corroborated by
    • Texts: Jataka Stories has stories of trade with Suvarnadvipa (South East Asia) and Ratnadvipa (LANKA) , Sangam Poetry (Indo-Roman trade)  , Periplus Maris Erythraei etc.
    • Archaeology: Dwarka & Bet Dwarka in Gujarat, Kaveripattinam, Muziris etc.
  • A major stimulus to trade was due to
    • The demand for Chinese silk in the Mediterranean Region. Chinese silk was traded through India rather than being sent directly. The reason was the political situation. Parthians were powerful rulers along the North-Western boundary of the Indian subcontinent. There was constant hostility between them & the Roman Empire. Hence, trade routes between China & the Roman Empire were disturbed. (Route : China TO India via Silk Route => Indian Ports of Barbaricum (on Indus) & Baroach => Alexandria)
    • Existence of Kushana rule which provided stability  & safety to trade + reduction in tariffs.
    • Traders started to take advantage of Monsoon winds. Periplus speaks about Hippalus’s discovery of Monsoon winds.
  • Trade with China was disturbed at the end of the 3rd century because of certain reasons like Han Dynasty ended in 220 AD, the Byzantine Empire broke away from Rome and  Kushana Empire collapsed. However trade didn’t end altogether, there were some changes in routes. Trade shifted southward with the main emphasis on oceanic trade (i.e. earlier Silk to India was brought overland and then from India went to the Mediterranean world by Sea but now whole supply route shifted to Sea Route).

Trade with East & South-East Asia 

  • Earlier, the relation between India & South-East Asia seen as political & cultural colonisation of the latter. But that perception has changed now as there were reciprocal links between India & South  Asia.
  • Ancient Sanskrit & Pali Text refer to South Asia as  Suvarnadvipa & Suvarnabhumi i.e. land of gold and associated with riches.
  • Since coinage was absent in SE Asia – trade must have been Barter or with the use of cowrie shells .

Major imports & exports included

Export 1. Cotton Cloth
2. Sugar
3. Certain kind of pottery
Import 1. Gold 
2. Spices (cinnamon & cloves)
3. Aromatics   

Some of these items especially Spices were shipped to the western world. Trade in spices was an attempt to meet the great demand of spices from the Roman world. Indian production alone couldn’t satisfy their needs.

Indo – Roman Trade

Trade increased during this period  because 

  1. By the end of the last century BCE, Rome emerged as the superpower of the Mediterranean world, displacing the Greek kingdoms, and the republic became an empire in 27 BCE under Emperor Augustus. Rome was the largest and wealthiest city in the world and wealth of Rome greatly increased the demand for various products from India, especially the spices and textiles of the Tamil country, resulting in a great expansion of trade.
  2. Discovery of the pattern of monsoon winds in the Arabian Sea in the first century CE by Hippalus, an Egyptian sailor. Till then, only Arabs had the knowledge of these winds giving them monopoly of trade between India and Mediterranean world.
  3. Overland route between India and Roman Empire became vulnerable to attacks by Parthians in Iran due enmity between Romans and Parthians.

Items of Export

  1. Spices (especially Pepper) 
  2. Fragrant woods
  3. Silk came from China to India and from India send to Roman World
  4. Cotton fabric from Madurai
  5. Pearls

Items of Import

  1. Roman wine 
  2. Yavana lamp 
  3. Coins
  4. Coral
  5. wheat for the Graeco-Romans in the Tamil ports.

Roman Coins

  • Indians imported very few goods but were eager to get precious metal, so quest for Roman gold was driving force behind India’s International trade.
  • Large number of Roman coins have been discovered, especially in South India .
  • Roman Kings whose coins found
Maximum – Maximum coins belonged to the reign of Augustus (31 BC -14 AD) and Tiberius (14 AD – 37 AD) . \
Interestingly , their local imitations also found .
Post-Nero Post-Nero (64AD) due to debasement of Roman currency shortage of Roman Coins seen.
  • Issue of Drain of Gold from the Roman Empire
    • Roman Gold was the main item of demand in return for Indian Exports (especially spices) .
    • Periplus  & Sangam poems tell us about the ships of Yavannas coming with gold & returning with black pepper.
    • Romilla Thappar has called Black Pepper as Black Gold of India due to gold India was getting in return for pepper 
    • In fact drain of wealth was so much that Romans became anxious. Roman historian Pliny complained of the trade with the east being a serious drain on the income of Rome. 1/5th of gold used in trade was being sent to India for Spice Trade
Roman and Byzantine Coins

Impact of Trade on other fields

1 . Impact on Science

Two branches  of science were surely impacted

1.1 Astronomy

  • Deep-sea navigation required reliable study of stars. Hence, it received a mercantile patronage.
  • Astronomy also developed due to the exchange of ideas with West Asia where this field was already very much developed.

1.2 Medicine

  • Indian herbal knowledge reached the western world.
  • Greek botanist Theophrastus in ‘History of Plants’ tells about the medicinal use of various Indian plants and herbs  .

2. Impact on Culture

2.1 Western World

North India was very much impacted by Hellenistic ideas as

  • The emergence of Gandhara art.
  • Indian folk-tales and fables travelled westwards (Panchatantra)  .
  • Chaturanga –  chess using four traditional wings of army & played by 4 players reached Persia.   
  • Certain aspects of the life of Christ-like supernatural birth & temptation by Devil influenced by legends of life of Buddha .

2.2 Central Asia

  • Buddhism reached to Central Asia through Traders. 
  • Indian traders patronised Buddhist Monasteries at places like Kashgar, Kucha, Khotan etc.

2.3 China

  • Goods of Chinese origin started to be used in India. Bamboo, Chinese Patta etc. clearly show that they were Chinese. 
  • Buddhist missionaries arrived in China & established themselves at Famous White House Monastery at Lo Yang (starting point of Silk Route) .

2.4 South East Asia

  • Legends about the origin of kingdoms in south-east Asia trace the story back to Indian princes and merchants. Eg: Indian brahman, Kaundinya, is said to have married a Cambodian princess, & introduced Indian culture to Cambodia. 
  • Indian literature narrates the adventures of Indian travellers in these part .

Sangam Literature

Sangam Literature

This article deals with ‘ Sangam Literature ’. This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.

What is Sangam Literature?

  • Sangam literature is  oral bardic literature  belonging to time period 200 BC to 300 AD.

The legend associated with Sangam Poetry

History of the Sangam is clogged in legends.

  • Tradition says there were three Sangams patronised by Pandyas when Scholars assembled to publish their works . Work of only last one survives .
  • Word Sangam is of Indo Aryan Origin and is used nowhere in Sangam Literature. Scholars like Kamil Zvelebil argue that it should be called Classical Literature .
  • In reality, Poems were not the product of Sangam. Poems were much earlier composed in oral form by Bards between 200 BC to 300 CE. Word Sangam was associated with them when commentaries on it were written in 12-14th Century under Pandya patronage .
Sangam Place Chairman Kingdom Books
First Then-madurai Agasthya Pandya No book survived
Second Kapatapuram Agasthya Pandya No book survived
Third  Madurai Nakirrar Pandya Covers entire corpus of Sangam literature

These poems were written by 

  • Bards who roamed about singing in praise of their patron chiefs and heroes .
  • Some  were also composed by scholarly poets who followed the bardic tradition like Kapilar  and Gautamanar .

Two genre i.e. Akam and Puram

The whole text is presented in two genres

Akam – Love poems
Deal with the inner life of people  .
Love is expressed in separation & union ; before or after marriage & extramarital love  .
Puram Public or War Poems Deals with the outer life of people. Speak of  public celebration of the feats of the heroes even the death of heroes in wars .

Tinai Concept & Sangam Poems

According to the Tinai concept, Tamilaham was divided into five landscapes or eco-regions, Aintinai namely Kurinji, Palai Mullai, Marutam and Neital. Each region had distinct characteristics – a presiding deity, people and cultural life according to the environmental conditions .

Tinai Meaning  Akam Theme Puram Theme
Kurinji Hilly Zone Clandestine meeting of the hero and the heroine Cattle Raid
Palai Arid Zone  Separation of lovers Victory
Mullai Pastoral Tracts patient waiting on the part of wife for the return of her husband from a journey Invasions
Marutam Wet land /Riverine landscape Lover’s quarrel due to hero’s infidelity Seige of enemy fort
Neital Sea Coast Bemoaning the lover’s absence  Fierce Battle

Problem in Dating

There is problem in dating as  several periods are represented in Sangam Literature

  • Period of actual composition and oral transmission2nd century B.C. to A.D. 3rd century.
  • Period of the codification when written form was given : 6th and 9th centuries.
  • Period  of the commentaries : 12th – 14th centuries ( under Pandyan rulers of Madurai) – These commentaries infact give name Sangam to whole corpus 

it is hard to clearly sort out the earlier from the later as they are all mixed up

Other Points

  • Poet in Sangam Poetry doesn’t speak through his / her own persona but uses various characters such as heroine , her friend , her foster mother or hero as his mouthpiece .
  • Spanned over a few centuries, the poems reflect the gradual development of the Tamil language and literature
  • It is a great source of Socio-Economic life as well . Poets have taken real life situations for similes, metaphors etc .


Ettutokai Consist of 8 collections of Poems (out of 8, 6 belong to Sangam Period)  
Pattuppattu Ten songs
9 out of 10 songs belong to Sangam Age .  
Grammar Tolkappiyam (Author – Tolkapiyar) is a work of Tamil Grammar. Earliest parts of the first two books of Tolkappiyam belong to Sangam Period & rest  belong to later date  corresponding to 400-500 AD .  

Sangam Literature is not a homogenous corpus either in time or in style but spread over vast time of 5 centuries and later additions in main texts .

Sangam Poetry

These were quite spontaneous songs created by bards in praise of heroes & powerful chiefs.

Side Topic : Importance of these bards

  • Most important basis of legitimisation of political power in south India was eulogy of poets . Poet’s praise of  generosity & heroism of King that could attain lasting fame for him & conversely , poet’s anger could prove costly .
  • Sangam texts are secular in nature because unlike Vedic texts , they were composed by various poets in praise of heroes & heroines .

What Sangam Poems tell ?

1 . Sangam Poems are pervaded with a warrior ethic .

  • The goal of the hero of Puram poems was Pukal (glory , fame) and heroic death was greatly valued.
  • It was believed that the spirit of a warrior who died in battle dwelt in Paradise. A poem suggests that those who didn’t die in battle were cut with swords before funerary rights to simulate death in battle.

“If a child of my clan should die,

if it is born dead, a mere gob of flesh

not yet human,

They will put it to the sword, to give the thing a warrior’s death”

  • Losing one’s life in the battle, and that too with wounds on the chest was considered a great honour. On the contrary, wounds on the back were considered a sign of cowardice or disgrace. Numerous poems speak about the delight of brave mothers over the death of their sons in the battle with wounds on the chest.

“Her delight

When she heard that her son fell in battle Felling an elephant,

 Was greater than at his birth”

  • The practice of Vattakiruthal is also mentioned in which defeated king committed ritual suicide by starving himself to death.

2. Cult of Hero Worship

  • Chiefs needed strong warriors. To attract , warriors were rewarded with the booty or land, if they happened to be alive. But more important was their reward if they lose their life by making them on par with Gods through Sangam Poems .

3. Geography

  • In ancient Sangam poetry, Tamilaham is portrayed as a combination of five Tinais (Aintinai) or 5 Ecozones and bards tried to correlate the activities to ecological perceptions. (as explained above)

4. Polity

Three type of Chiefs were mentioned in Sangam poems 

Kizar Little Chiefs Headman of village(Ur)  Some were subjugated by bigger chiefs and they served them in campaigns  & awarded in return .  
Velir Bigger Chiefs Intermediate chiefs who were less powerful than Vendars . They were many in number and controlled the territories of varied geographical nature, mainly hilly and forest areas, that were in between the muvendar’s fertile territories.  
Vendar Biggest Chiefs These were the most powerful chiefdoms. There were three Vendars also known as Muvendars . These included Chera, Chola and Pandya . They controlled the fertile territories and thus had more resources at their disposal . They also patronised the bards and poets so that they glorified their name and fame. Main concern of Vendars was subordination of Velir chiefs who were next in importance. For this, they adopted following ways :- Subjugation through combats . Marriage alliances : Cholas, Cheras & Pandyas often took daughters of Velir as wife.

5. Interaction between south and north

  • Sangam poems also reflect emergence of new basis of legitimisation by performance of Brahmanical sacrifices , establishing links with northern epic traditions etc .
  • Certain chiefs were described in poems to have emerged from sacrificial fire pits of northern sages like Sage Agasthya.
  • Sangam poets were familiar with the Mahabharata and Ramayana legends and infact Chola, Chera and Pandya kings claim to have fed the warring armies on the eve of war.

6. Trade with Yavanas

  • Sangam Poems refers to Yavanas (Romans) coming by ships into ports of South India bringing Gold and wine and sailing away with cargoes of Pepper from Kaveripattanam and Muziris. 

7. Social Classification

  • The social classification of Varna was known to Sangam Poets. There is mention of Arashar (King) , Vaishiyar (traders) & Velalar (farmers) . Brahmins are also mentioned .  However, 4 fold varna classification had little application to ancient Tamil Society. More relevant basis of classification was Kuti which were clan based descent groups  . Although associated with lineage and hereditary occupation , there were no real restrictions on inter dining and social interactions among Kuti Groups.

8. Position of Women

  • Interestingly there were 30 women composers . 
  • In these poems, women appear to be regularly labouring in the production process along with the men in different contexts . 60% of the agricultural process were associated with the women. 
  • We also find that , women were engaged in rearing of sheep and cattle (in Pasture Zone) . In Coastal Zone , they were engaged in Salt manufacturing .
  • There are also references of kings employing women bodyguards.
  • Women also appear in Sangam texts as proud and glorified mothers of heroes
  • Sangam poems speak about various types of prostitutes and illicit and stealthy love is also a regular theme 

9. Deities

These poems also tell about the various deities worshipped by people of Tamilaham in Sangam period . These deities were also associated with different Ecological Zones or Tinais . Now  it is considered that  seeds of Bhakti in south India lies in Sangam age.

Region Deities
Kurinji Murukkam (later identified with Karttikeya)
Mullai Mayon (later identified with Vishnu)
Marutam Ventan
Neytal Varunan  (god of Sea)
Palai Korravai (Devi) 

Indian Dynasties during 200 BC to 300 AD

Indian Dynasties during 200 BC to 300 AD

This article deals with  Indian Dynasties during 200 BC to 300 AD ’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.


  • Period between circa 200 B.C. and A.D. 300 in conventional historical writings is called dark period because of the absence of territorial large imperial dynasty   (with the exception of Kushanas).
  • But viewed differently, this period was important due to following developments
    • Development of extensive economic & cultural contacts within  country and with  West and Central Asia (through silk road , maritime etc.).
    • Evolution of new art forms at Mathura, Sarnath, Sanchi and Amravati.
    • Exalted notion of kingship developed with its pompous titles &  identification with divinity  .
    • State formation outside Northern India happened . Eg: Kalinga under Kharvela and  Satavahanas  in Deccan.
    • Centre of power moved North West (from Gangetic Plains)  due to various invasions  .
    • City life spread  ,  trade flourished and use of metallic money as medium of exchange became widespread.
    • Devotional worship of images in shrines started.

Sources of Information

1 . Jataka Stories

  • Jatakas were written during this period.
  • Jataka contains many stories of ordinary people, traders & travellers .

2 . Puranas

  • Puranas and Epics are rich source of information on Dynasties and emergence of early Hindu cults .

3. Dharmashastras

3.1 Manava Dharmasutra aka Manu Smriti  (Source for 200 BC to 200 AD)

  • Manu Smriti was written in 2-3rd Century BC. But the laws codified in it influenced the life from 200BC to 200AD.
  • Text vigorously defended Brahmanical privileges against enemies personified as Shudras & Mlechchhas & sought to strengthen the old alliance between Kings & Brahmanas  .

3.2 Yajnavalkya Smriti (100 AD to 300 AD)

  • Yajnavalkya Smriti  gives glimmers of society between circa 100 to 300 AD.

4 . Sanskrit Literature

Many Sanskrit works were written during this time. Eg :

Writer Work
Ashvaghosha Buddhacharita (Hagiography of Buddha)   
Kalidasa 1. Malvikagnimitram
2. Abhijanashakuntalam
3. Raghuvamsha
4. Meghdutta
Charaka & Shushruta Medical works

Later works of Mahayana thinkers such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu etc. are all in Sanskrit.

5 . Mahabhashya

  • Mahabhashya is a commentary on Panini’s Ashtadhayayi written  by Patanjali .
  • Patanjali was contemporary of Pushyamitra Shunga .

6 . Epics

This period witnessed composition of the greater portions of two epics , namely,

  • The Ramayana
  • The Mahabharata

7. Sangam Literature

  • Sangam Literature is the name given to Tamil literature which gives insight into the social, political, religious etc. life in the region known as Tamilaham.
  • It is the main source of knowledge about the polity and administration of early Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas .

8. Graeco – Roman Texts

Works of Arrian, Strabo, Ptolemy & Pliny the elder were written during this period.

Writer Text
Strabo Geographikon
Ptolemy Geography (c. AD 150)
Pliny Naturalis Historia (about 79 AD)

8.1 Periplus Maris Erythraei 

  • This book was authored by an unknown Egyptian Greek involved in the trade who travelled from the Red Sea to India (around 80 BC) & wrote a book based on his experience & observation.
  • He left a record of its ports, harbours and merchandise. This book gives us an idea of maritime activities.
  • ‘Periplus’ claims that Hippalus a mariner, was knowledgable about the monsoon winds that shortens the round-trip from India to the Red Sea and vice versa.

8.2 Vienna Papyrus

  • This document was written in the 2nd Century AD in Greek (language).
  • The document is presently preserved in the Vienna Museum and hence known as Vienna Papyrus.
  • It records terms of business deal & loan between two shippers of Alexandria & Muziri.
  • It also tells about the route, how commodities reached from Muziri to Alexandria.
Vienna Papyrus

9. Chinese Accounts

  • Chinese texts named Ch’ien Han-Shu & Hou Han-Shu gives us information on movement & migration of people in Central Asia.

10 . Archaeology

  • North IndiaLate NBPW & Post NBPW levels represent the period between 200 BC and 300 AD.
  • Deccan & South India: This period corresponds to the transition from later Megalithic Phase to Early Urban  Phase.

11. Inscriptions

Range & number of inscriptions increased dramatically.

  • North India –  Royal inscriptions reflect the transition from Prakrit towards Sanskrit.
  • South India – Earliest inscription made an appearance.
  • Royal inscriptions –  Provide details dynastic histories.
  • Ordinary inscriptions –  contain a record of pious donations made by ordinary men.

12. Coins

Expansion of state polities and the spread of urban centres led to the development of coinage.

  • Indo – Greeks: Almost all information about them comes from their coins.
  • Kushanas coins: dealt in the chapter.
  • Satavahana coins
  • Roman coins provide us with information about Indo-Roman trade interactions.
  • City coins issued by urban administration like  Ujjain  , Vidisha & Taxila etc.

1. North India Dynasties

1.1 Shungas 

  • Shungas were Brahmins from Ujjain & worked as an official under Maurayas.
  • This dynasty was founded by Pushymitra Shunga. 

Important rulers of Shungas

Pushyamitra Shunga

  • Pushyamitra assassinated the last Mauryan king Brihadratha in 180 BC (works of Banabhata corroborate this).
  • He was a Brahmin himself and supporter of Brahmanism. He performed Ashvameda Yajna after proclaiming the throne.
  • Buddhist sources like  ‘Divyavadana’ depicts that he persecuted Buddhists &  destroyed many Buddhist monasteries.
  • His kingdom extended only over Pataliputra (capital), Ayodhya & Vidisha
  • From Malvikagnimitrum (of Kalidasa), we come to know that he faced various incursions of Yavanas (Bactrian Greeks) in the North West but was able to defeat them with help of his grandson (Agnimitra Shunga).
  • According to Puranas, he reigned for 36 years & succeeded by his grandson Agnimitra Shunga.

Agnimitra  Shunga

  • Malvikagnimitram (of Kalidasa) presents a different picture of Shunga rule under  Agnimitra than that presented by Divyavadana.
  • There were frequent clashes with Bactrian Greeks during his reign as well. Patanjali (2nd century BC grammarian) states that Yavanas were able to come up to Saketa . 

Later kings

  • 10 Shunga kings are supposed to have ruled 112 years.
  • They too became a victim of a conspiracy masterminded by Brahmana minister Vasudeva Kanava who started Kanava Dynasty.

Side Topic: Besnagar Inscription of Heliodorus

  • Besnagar is situated near Vidisha.
  • Here  Heliodorus (ambassador of Greek king Antialkidas) constructed Pillar of Garuda (vehicle of Vishnu) with inscription in Prakrit.
  • This shows that Shungas continued the Mauryan tradition of entertaining greek ambassadors. 
  • In the inscription, Greek ambassador describes himself to be a worshipper of God Vasudeva Krishna.
  • This pillar is quite different from earlier Maurya pillars. (it was small, not polished and not monolithic) .
Besnagar Inscription of Heliodorus

1.2 Indo-Greeks

  • Indo-Greeks are known as  ‘Yavanas’ in Indian sources. 
  • They were originally Satraps (principalities) of Seleucid Empire of West Asia. Later, the Seleucid Empire started to weaken. As a result, around 250 BC, Governor of Bactria, Diodotus, revolted and started to rule as an independent ruler of Bactria with capital at Bactra (Majar-e-Sharif).
  • Most important Indo-Greek king was Menander who can be identified as King Milinda of book Milindapanha who poses a number of question to Buddhist Monk Nagasena and reigned between 165-130 BC. He is said to have ruled a large kingdom as his coins have been found over an extensive area ranging from the valleys of the Kabul and Indus rivers to as far as western Uttar Pradesh.   The incident shown in Milindapanha is claimed to have resulted in Menander’s conversion to Buddhism. This was a period when Greeks were interested in Buddhism, so such a manual is extremely useful to know about the propagation of religion.
Coins of King Menander
  • Another Indo-Greek king whose name is remembered is Antialcidas (or Antialkidas), (c. 110 BC). He is known to us primarily because his emissary, Heliodorus, was sent to the court of King Bhagabhadra and he erected a pillar with its capital adorned by a figure of Garuda, in honour of God Krishna (Vasudeva). Heliodorus had evidently become a follower of Vasudeva Krishna.

Coins of Indo-Greek Kings

  • Distinguishing feature of the reign of the Indo-Greek kings was their exquisite coinage. These coins carried the portrait of the reigning king on one side with his name and Greek or Indian deities on the other side
  • Most of these coins were bilingual with Greek Language-Greek Script & Prakrit Language-Kharosthi Script.
  • 34 out of 45 Indo Greek kings were known through the coins .
  • They also help us to date the rise of sects . Eg : Krishna Vasudeva and Balarama depicted on Indo-Greek coins shows that they were important deities. 
  • Coins of Sakas , Parthians & Kushanas followed basic features of Indo-Greek coins including bilingual & bi-script .
  • Indo-Greek coins introduced innovations in Indian numismatics, such as
    • die-striking
    • use of legends
    • portraits of rulers
    • representation of deities.
Coins of Indo-Greek Kings

Fall of Indo-Greeks

  • Attack from Scythian tribes: With the construction of the Chinese Wall, the Scythians could not move towards China and in turn attacked Greeks and Parthians.  Parthians in return also started to attack Greeks. Hence, by about 165 BCE, Bactria was lost to the Parthians and Sakas. After this, the Indo-Greeks continued to rule in central and southern Afghanistan and north-western India.
  • The Greeks continued to be beset with internal squabbles among many claimants to power, and the names of more than thirty kings can be identified from their coins. It is possible that they all ruled small pockets as autonomous rulers and issued their own coinage.

Significance of their rule

  • They introduced the Hellenistic art features in north-western India which culminated in the Gandhara art style.
  • Coinage of Indo-Greeks was far ahead of their time in quality and aesthetics which impacted the later coinage in India .

Side Topic: Movements of the Pastoralists & building of Empires

Greek kingdoms declined in north-west due to attack on Bactria by nomadic peoples from central Asia.

  • Scythians/ Sakas inhabited the region around Lake Issyk-Kul and the river Jaxartes. They were attacked by Yueh-Chih/Yuezhi forcing Scythians to migrate westward.
  • Yueh-Chih (original home – west China) attacked Scythians because they were attacked by Xiung Nu (Hunas).
  • Xiung Nu were impacted because their pastures dried up and Chinese Emperor Shi Huang Ti built THE GREAT WALL restricting their movement and raids toward China.

(Source : Hou Han Shu and Chien Han Shu )

Movements of the Pastoralists & building of Empires

1.3 Sakas

  • Sakas aka Scythians were originally the inhabitants of Central Asia (the region around Lake Issyk-Kul and river Jaxartes). 
  • Sources sometimes mention Scythians & Parthians together as Saka-Pahlawa.
  • Sakas destroyed the Greek suzerainty over Bactria with their continuous attacks. 
  • There were  many branches of Sakas ruling simultaneously like
1 Settled in Afghanistan
2 Settled in Punjab. Ruled with Taxila as their capital.
3 Ruled from Mathura. 
4 Established themselves in Western & Central India.  Their rule continued till the 4th century AD.
  • In India, the Sakas assimilated into the Hindu society. They began to adopt Hindu names and religious beliefs, so much so that their coins had representations of Hindu gods on one side.

Main rulers of Sakas

1 . Maues / Moga

  • He was the earliest Saka King in Gandhara with rule starting from circa 80 BCE.
  • We come to know about Maues from his coins & inscriptions.
  • He also established  Stupa during his period.

2. Azes I

  • Azes I succeeded Maues.
  • He successfully attacked and defeated the last Indo-Greek king in North India (Hippostratos) and extended Saka rule as far as Mathura.

Inscription of Azes I has led BN Mukherjee to conclude that it was Azes I who started an era around 57 BC known as Vikram Era. Hence, a ruler who started an era in 57 BC wasn’t Vikramaditya but Saka ruler Azes I.

3 . Azilises & Azes II

  • Azilises succeeded Azes 1 who was further succeeded by Azes II.
  • They were definitely controlling Taxila and their control extended tIll Ganga Yamuna Doab.
  • They are largely known from their inscriptions. 


  • He is one of the most famous Saka Kshatrapas who ruled between 130–150 CE.
  • His exploits are celebrated in the famous rock inscription of Junagadh (in Gujarat).
  • According to the inscription, he had even defeated the Satavahanas in battle.
  • His name indicates that the process of assimilation into Indian society was complete by that time.

Title of Saka Kings

  • Saka Kings used Iranian title King of Kings (Shahanu Shahi)   
    • This point towards the existence of lesser chieftains or smaller kings. 
    • There were Provincial Governors known as Kshatrapas & Mahakshatrapas who were appointed by the king.
  • => Hence, there was a confederation of chieftains headed by the Saka Kings
  • But Chieftains and Governors exercised a considerable degree of autonomy.

Satrap System

  • Sakas along with Parthians introduced Satrap system. It was similar to Achaemenid  & Seleucid systems in Iran in which
    • Kingdom was divided into Provinces.
    • Each Province was under a Provincial Governor called Mahakshatrapa (The Great Satrap).
    • Governors with lower status were called Kshatrapas (Satraps).
  • Governors enjoyed AUTONOMY. They issued their own inscriptions & minted their own coins
  • Later, these Kshatrapas asserted their independence.

1.4 Parthians aka Pahlawas

  • Rule of Sakas & Parthians was simultaneous in North  & North-West India.
  • Parthians originated in Iran & later moved to Indo- Iranian borderlands .


  • Aka Guduvhara.
  • Most prominent Parthian King.
  • Ruled in first century A.D.
  • Area: Kabul to Panjab 
  • St. Thomas travelled  to his court  for the propagation of Christianity

Other points

  • Their rule was marked by  scarcity of silver coins . It is possible that silver coins of  predecessors i.e. Sakas and Indo – Greeks served their needs .
  • Their rule ended with rise of the Kushanas  .
  • Gradually, Parthians  assimilated in the Indian society .

1.5 Kushanas


  • They are mentioned in Chinese Annals as Yueh Chi living around Lake Ysyk Kol. They were attacked & defeated by Xiung Nu  (Hunas)  and subsequently, Yueh Chi moved westwards.
  • There were 5 Yeuh- Chi principalities & one was Kuei – Shang (Kushanas) with capital (initial) at Bactra (Majar e Sharif).

Kushana rulers

1 . Kujula Kadphises

  • He is also known as Kadphises I. 
  • Kujula Kadphises amalgamated  5 Yueh Chih principalities.
  • He established control south of Hindu-Kush Mountains and issued coins suggesting association with Buddhism .

2. Vima Kadphises

  • He was the son of Kujula Kadphises.
  • He expanded the empire to Kabul, Indus Valley & Mathura region.
  • He was the first in Indian subcontinent to issue gold coins.
  • His coins suggest an association with Shiva.

3. Kanishka

  • Kushana rule reached its zenith during his reign.
  • His reign began in 78 AD which also marks the start of Shaka Era.
  • His central Asian identity with boots, coat etc. is imprinted on a statue, unfortunately headless, found near Mathura.
  • His empire consisted of
    • Afghanistan, 
    • Xinjiang (China)
    • Central Asia up to the north of Oxus river
    • Indian regions
Indian Dynasties during 200 BC to 300 AD
  • Towards the end of his reign, he led an unsuccessful military campaign against Chinese in which his forces were defeated & he was forced to pay tribute.
  • He is celebrated as the patron of Buddhism. Northern Buddhists claimed that Kanishka organised the Fourth Buddhist Council to clarify Buddhist doctrine ( parallel to Theravada (South) Buddhism claim that Ashoka organised 3rd Council). A most significant outcome of this council was (1) recognition to new Buddhist sects and (2) Missionaries were sent to Central Asia.
  • But given the territorial span, royal patronage was extended to Buddhism, Jainism, Bhagavata and Shaiva sects, Zoroastrianism and Hellenistic cults. Various deities like Shiva, Buddha, Nana & many other West-Asian divinities can be found on their coins.

4. Successors

  • His immediate successors were Vasishka, Huvishka, Kanishka 2 & Vasudeva I.
  • Empire started to decline from the time of Vasudeva I & Vasudeva 2 was last Kushana ruler. Their rule ended in 262 AD.

Kushana Coinage

  • Kushana coins were of the highest quality and conformed to the weight standards of Roman coins.
  • In the coins, Kushana rulers are referred to as “king of kings”, “Caesar”, “lord of all lands” and by other such titles. Unfortunately, the titles did not leave much room on the coins for the actual name of the ruler.
  • Kushana coins tell us that Kushanas were eclectic. Different divinities like  Shiva, Buddha, Nana etc. on their coins corroborate this fact.
  • Coins of Kushanas shows that Kushanas were appropriating Divine Status for the Kings because of features like a halo around the head, flames on shoulders etc.
  • Importance of the Kushana coins in international transactions is borne out by the discovery of Kushana coins in Ethiopia.
Kushana Coins

Art and Literature during Kushanas

  • During the reign of Kushanas, art and literature flourished. This was partly due to royal patronage and partly due to other factors, like the growing ascendancy of Mahayana Buddhism, which allowed the representation of the person of Buddha in human form.
  • Two separate schools of art developed during this period
    1. Gandhara School: It was influenced by Greeks and also known as Indo-Greek style of sculpture and art.
    2. Mathura School: It was red sandstone sculpture produced in areas around Mathura.
  • Buddhists began to carve out rock caves in the hills of western India, which served as religious centres with chaityas and viharas, stretching from the Ajanta caves to the Kanheri caves in Mumbai. Large statues of Buddha were sculpted in these caves as a part of the Mahayana tradition.
  • Kanishka was the patron of Buddhist philosophers such as Asvaghosha (writer of Buddhacharita and Sariputraprakarana), Parsva and Vasumitra, as well as the great Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna.  Among the Hindu treatises,  Manusmriti and Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra took final shape during this period.

2. South India

2.1 Mahameghavahanas

  • Mahameghavahanas were ruled Kalinga in Orissa (earlier Kalinga was conquered by Asoka from the local power).
  • During Post-Maurya period again came under the local line of rulers named Mahameghavahana who descended from an ancient line of the Chedis.


  • He was the third Mahameghavahana ruler.
  • Important Source:  Hathigumpha Cave Inscription (near Bhubaneswar) which provides the following information
    • It gives a year-wise account of his reign.
    • Tell his military victories in north, west and south India  .
    • Undertook many public works.
    • As practising Jaina excavated cave-shelters for Jaina monks on Udayagiri hills.
  • Agricultural Expansion: Kharavela refers to irrigation canals built by the Nandas, but proudly mentions his own efforts in this direction.
  • Kharavela did not issue coins. It is possible that the Kalingan economy was not yet ready for its own coinage.
  • Mahameghavahana Dynasty collapsed after his demise  .

2.2 Satavahanas

Satavahana Empire


  • Satavahanas are the Andhras of Puranas.  
  • Gatha Saptasati, a Prakrit text composed by the Satavahana king Hala.
  • Inscriptions like Naneghat & Nashik inscription.
  • Account of Pliny: Eg – Andhra country had 30 walled cities and a large army of 1 lakh infantry, 2000 cavalry & 1000 elephants.
  • Accounts of Periplus in Periplus Maris Erythraei.
  • Coins of Satavahanas. Eg –  Coins of Yajnashri Satkarni has ship on the coins showing the importance of Trade & Commerce.

Satavahana rulers

Although there is controversy about dates but a sequence of rulers is fairly clear.

1 . Initial rulers

  • Satavahana dynasty was founded by Simuka who was followed by Kanha (brother of Simuka)  followed by  Satakarni I.

2. Satkarni I

  • Naganika (wife of Satkarni I) in his Naneghat inscription describes him as Lord of Dakshinapatha who performed two Ashvamedha Yajanas.

3. Gautamiputra Satkarni

  • Gautamiputra Satakarni was the greatest of the Satavahana kings.
  • He defeated the Shaka ruler Nahapana and reissued the coins of Nahapana with his own royal insignia.
  • Achievements are engraved in Inscription of his mother (Gautami Balashri) in Nashik. He is described as the destroyer of Shakas, Pahlavas, & Yavanas.
  • He is also said to have performed the prestigious Vedic Asvamedha sacrifice.
  • Towards the end of his reign, he suffered defeats from Rudradaman I.

4 . Vasishthiputra Pulumayi

  • Vasishthiputra Pulumayi, the successor of Gautamiputra Satakarni, expanded the frontiers of the Satavahana Empire. The coins issued by him are found scattered in many parts of south India.

5. Yajnashri Satkarni

  • Yajnashri Satkarni was another famous ruler who issued coins with a ship motif, indicating the importance of the overseas trade during his reign.

Satavahana dynasty came to end in mid 3rd century CE . The breakup of empire paved way for the rise of

  1. Vakatakas in Deccan
  2. Kadambas in Mysore
  3. Abhiras in Maharashtra
  4. Ikshvakus in Andhra 

Descent of Satavahanas

  • They claimed Brahamana descent. 
  • Nashik Inscription states them to be Ekabamhana i.e. Peerless Brahamana and Khatiya dapa manamada i.e. who destroyed the pride of Kshatriyas.

Use of Matronyms

  • Satavahanas use name of their mother like Gautamiputra Satkarni, Vasishthiputra Pulumayi etc. This is significant, however, this doesn’t mean they followed the matriarchal system. Their succession was still Patrilineal.
  • They were followers of cross-cousin system of marriage, especially with father’s sister’s daughter. 

Land Grants

  • Offering land grants was an important development of the Satavahana times. The beneficiaries of these grants were mostly Buddhists and Brahmins. The Naneghat inscription refers to tax exemptions given to the lands granted to Buddhist monks. These land donations created a group of people who did not cultivate but owned land.

2.3 Muvendors: Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas

From Sangam poetry, we come to know that Muvendar, ‘the three crowned kings’, the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas controlled major agrarian territories, trade routes and towns.

Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas


  • The area under their control included central and northern Tamil Nadu i.e. Kaveri delta also known as Cholamandalam.
  • Capital: Uraiyur
  • Main Port : Puhar or Kaviripattinam 
  • Emblem: Tiger 
  • Sangam literature point towards fact that Kaviripattinam attracted merchants from various regions of the Indian Ocean and Roman Empire.
  • Sangam poems portray Karikalan as the greatest Chola of the Sangam age. Karikalan’s foremost military achievement was the defeat of the Cheras and the Pandyas, supported by as many as eleven Velir chieftains at Venni. He is credited with converting forest into habitable regions and developing agriculture by providing irrigation through the embankment of the Kaveri and building reservoirs.
  • Perunarkilli performed the Vedic sacrifice Rajasuyam or Rajasuya Yajna.


  • The area under their control included central and northern parts of Kerala and Kongu region of Tamil Nadu.
  • Capital: Karur
  • Main Port: Muziris
  • Emblem: Bow and Arrow
  • Sangam poems speak about eight Chera kings, their territory and fame. 


  • Capital: Madurai
  • Main port: Korkai
  • Emblem: Fish
  • According to traditions, they patronized the Tamil Sangams and facilitated the compilation of the Sangam poems .

Mauryan Empire

Mauryan Empire

This article deals with the Mauryan Empire. This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of the GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.


  • The Mauryan Empire is the first largest empires that were ever established on Indian soil.
Mauryan Empire

Sources of Mauryan Empire

The sources include literary sources, epigraphical sources, foreign accounts and other materials obtained from archaeological excavations.

1 . Literary Sources

1.1 Arthashastra

  • Arthashastra means ‘science of statecraft‘.
  • It was written by Kautilya / Chanakya in the 4th century BCE during the reigns of Chandragupta Maurya (although there is debate about the authorship).
  • It consists of 15 books dealing with Internal Administration, Inter-state relations and miscellaneous topics.
  • It gives us information like the administrative system, officers, the role of King etc.
  • However, it must be remembered that the Arthashastra was a prescriptive text, which laid down the guidelines for good administration.

1.2 Megasthenes Indica

  • Megasthenes was the Ambassador of Seleucus Nikator (Indo-Greek king) in the court of Chandragupta Maurya.
  • Megasthenes wrote the book INDICA. Although the original book has not survived & fragments are preserved in later Greek works (of Diodorus, Strabo, Arrian, Plutarch & Pliny ).
  • But we have to keep in mind that India is seen through a double filter – first through Megasthenes interpretation of what he saw or heard & second Graeco-Roman writers interpretations of Megasthenes accounts.

1.3 Puranas

  • Puranas include a list of Mauryan Kings.
  • Eg: “Vishnu Purana’ throws light on the origin of Nandas and their overthrow by Chandragupta with the assistance of Kautilya.

1.4 Buddhist Texts

  • Ashoka was a celebrated figure in Buddhist texts because he was a patron of Buddhism.
  • He figures in later Buddhist texts like Divyavadana, Ashokavadhana, Mahavamsa and Deepavamsa.
  • But all the information from Buddhist texts can’t be accepted at face value because these books tend to exaggerate the accomplishments of Ashoka as he was their patron.

1.5 Jaina Texts

  • Jaina text named ‘Parisisthaparvan‘ by Hemachandra throws light on the early life of Chandragupta, the conquest of Magadha, his conversion to Jainism and famine during the later part of his reign.

1.6 Patanjali’s Mahabhashya

  • It was written in the last phase of the Maurya Period.
  • Mahabhashya is a major commentary on Panini’s Grammar by Patanjali.

1.7 Mudrarakshasa

  • Mudrarakshasa is a 5th-century historical drama written by  Vishakhadatta.
  • It revolves around a clever plot of Chanakya against Rakshasa, minister of Nanda.
  • In the drama, Vishakhadatta referred to Chandragupta as ‘Vrishala’ and ‘Kulahina’ which means he was a person of humble origin.
  • But the historicity of this drama remains uncertain.

2 . Ashoka’s Inscriptions

There are 14 Major Rock Edicts, 7 Pillar Edicts and some Minor Rock Inscriptions. 

Ashokan Edicts
Major Rock Edicts Shahbazgarhi
Kalsi (Dehradun)
Sopara ( Thana District)
Pillar Edicts Delhi (originally located at Topara near Ambala)
Lauriya Araraj
Lauriya Nandangarh
Lumbini / Rummindei
Minor Rock and Minor Pillar They were many but had an unusually large concentration in Deccan.  

The geographical spread of the edicts essentially defines the extent of the vast empire over which Ashoka ruled.

What do these inscriptions contain

  • Explanation of Dhamma.
  • King’s efforts to propagate it.
  • Own assessment of his success in doing so.
  • His allegiance to Buddha’s teachings & a close relationship with Sangha.
  • They also offer insights into Ashoka’s idea about his role as king, his administration and various social & economic aspects.

Content of Rock Edicts

1st Major Rock Edict Prohibition of animal sacrifice.
2nd Major Rock Edict Related to measures of social welfare.
3rd Major Rock Edict Respecting one’s parents.
4th Major Rock Edict Impact of Dhamma, Non-violence towards animals.
5th Major Rock Edict Appointment of Dhamma-Mahamattas to spread Dhamma.
6th Major Rock Edict Welfare measures of efficient administration.
7th Major Rock Edict Peace, the balance of mind, faith and tolerance.
8th Major Rock Edict Details of Bodhi tree.
9th Major Rock Edict Ceremony of Dhamma.
10th Major Rock Edict Ashoka’s desire to popularize Dhamma.
11th Major Rock Edict Appraisal of Dhamma and Religious tolerance.
12th Major Rock Edict Promoting religion of different faith.
13th Major Rock Edict Kalinga’s destruction and mention of Greek rulers.
14th Major Rock Edict Nature of all other rock edicts.

Language and script used in Inscriptions

These inscriptions were written in

Prakrit Language and Brahmi Script Most of the scripts found in India.
Prakrit Language and Kharosthi Script North-western regions (like Manshera and Shahbazgarhi).
Aramaic Language and Greek Language (bilingual) Lampaka and Kandahar.
Aramaic Language and Aramaic Script Laghman and Taxila.

Mystery of name Devampiya & Priyadarsi

  • James Princep decoded Brahmi script but the mystery remained regarding the king to which these inscriptions were referring. Name Ashoka doesn’t appear in the inscriptions. Ashoka was mentioned as Devampiya (beloved of Gods) & Priyadarsi (pleasant to behold).
  • This mystery was solved when a minor edict at Masaki (Karnataka) was found containing the personal name of Ashoka along with the prefix Devampiya and Priyadarsi.

3 . Archaeological evidences

  • The remains of the palaces of Chandragupta have been excavated at  Kumrahar and Bulandibagh.
  • Number of caves of Mauryan period have been found in the ranges of Barabar Hills and Nagarjuna.
  • Stupas have been found at Banaras, Prayag, Kannauj etc. which were built during Mauryan period and give  us detailed information on the religious condition during the Mauryan period.
  • Middle & late Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) pottery belong to Mauryan period .
  • Statues like that of a woman at Besnagar and the elephant statue at Dhauli reveal an indigenous technique in sculpture during the Mauryan times.

4. Numismatic Evidence

  • ‘Punch marked coins’ were in circulation during the Mauryan period. They do not bear the name of any ruler nor carry any date. But they were issued by a central authority indicated by the uniformity of symbols used.
  • These punched marked coins have been found at Atranjikhera, Sanchi, Patna, Hastinapur, Taxila, Tripuri and Sarnath.
Mauryan Coins

Controversy about the origin of Mauryas

According to various sources, the origin of Mauryas was as follows

Buddhist books like Digha Nikaya, Mahavamsa and Divyavadana Belonged to the Kshatriya clan called Mauryas who ruled Pippalivana.
Parishishtaparvan Chandragupta was the son of the daughter of the chief of a village of peacock tamers.
Mudrarakshasa Refers Chandragupta to be belonging to a low caste.
Dundiraja (Commentator of Vishnu Purana) Chandragupta was the eldest son of Nanda king Sarvarthasiddhi by Mura, daughter of a hunter.
Vaishya Origin theory Following facts point towards the fact that Mauryas were Vaishyas
1. Name ending ‘Gupta’ in Chandragupta’s name.
2. Asoka’s marriage to the daughter of a merchant of Vidisha.

Kings of Mauryan Empire

1 . Chandragupta Maurya (324 -297 BCE)

  • Chandragupta Maurya had ruled during the period of 324-297 BCE.
  • Chandragupta, with the help of Chanakya, defeated the last Nanda King and captured his empire. In this, Chandragupta took the advantage of the disturbances caused by the invasion of Alexander and his sudden death in 323 BCE in Babylon. With the help of Kautilya, Chandragupta raised a large army
    1. First of all, Chandragupta launched campaigns against the Nandas.
    2. Later, he shifted his concentration against Indo-Greek Governors / Kshatrapas ruling over north-western India.
    3. In 305 BCE, he defeated the army of Seleucus Nikator who was ruling the eastern part of Alexander’s empire after his death. After the defeat of Seleucus, a treaty was signed between Chandragupta Maurya and Seleucus Nikator under which territories of Kandahar, Kabul, Herat and Baluchistan was given to Chandragupta. Chandragupta presented 500 elephants to Seleucus. Apart from this, a matrimonial alliance was also signed and Seleucus married his daughter to Chandragupta Maurya. An ambassador named Megasthenes was also sent to the court of Chandragupta Maurya.
    4. Chandragupta expanded his empire westward as far as Gujarat corroborated by the Junahgarh / Girnar inscription.
  • Detailed information about the rule of Chandragupta Maurya is obtained from Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Kautilya was the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya and is considered the real architect of the Mauryan Empire.
  • Megasthenes came in the court of Chandragupta Maurya as an ambassador of the Seleucus Nikator (an Indo-Greek King).
  • The “Sandrakottus” or “Sandrakoptus”, mentioned in the Greek literature has been identified as Chandragupta Maurya.
  • According to Plutarch, he had an army of 600,000.
  • According to Jaina tradition, Chandragupta Maurya abdicated his throne and retired to Shravanabelagola in Karnataka with his teacher Bhadrabahu (Jain ascetic) where he committed Sallekhana.

More about Chanakya

  • Chanakya = renowned teacher at Taxila University. 
  • He saw Chandragupta when he was passing by his village. He was attracted by his personality and trained him for 8 years for war against Greeks & overthrowing Dhanananda. Earlier, Dhanananda insulted Chanakya when he approached him for help against the Greeks.
  • Contemporary Jain and Buddhist texts hardly have mention Chanakya. But popular oral tradition ascribes the greatness of Chandragupta and his reign to the wisdom and genius of Chanakya.
  • Chanakya, also known as Kautilya and Vishnugupta, was a Brahmin and a sworn adversary of the Nandas. He is credited with having devised the strategy for overthrowing the Nandas and helping Chandragupta to become the emperor of Magadha.
  • He is celebrated as the author of the Arthashastra, a treatise on political strategy and governance.
  • His intrigues and brilliant strategy to subvert the intended invasion of Magadha is the theme of the play, Mudrarakshasa.

2 . Bindusara (297 – 273 BCE)

  • He was the son of Chandragupta Maurya and ascended the throne after his father.
  • He is also known as ‘Amitraghata’ in Indian texts or ‘Amitrochates’ in Greek texts.
  • According to Tibetan historian named Taranath and Jain scholar named Hemachandra,  Chanakya continued as the minister of Bindusara after the death of Chandragupta Maurya as well.
  • During his reign, a revolt broke out in Taxila. Ashoka was sent to suppress the revolt and restore peace.
  • Greek Texts refer to his diplomatic relations with western kings.
    • Antiochus (king of Syria) sent an ambassador named Deimachus to his court.
    • Ptolemy II (ruler of Egypt) sent an ambassador named Dionysius.
    • Famous Story: Bindusara requested Antiochus (king of Syria) to buy & send some sweet wine, dried figs & sophist (philosopher specialised in debate & argumentation). He sends wine & dried figs & replied that Greek laws didn’t permit sophist to be bought.
  • He died in 273 BCE.

3. Ashoka (273 / 269 – 232 BCE)

  • There is a general agreement that  Ashoka was not the crown prince (Yuvaraja). He sat on the throne after winning 4 years-long war of succession following Bindusara’s death.
  • According to various texts,  Susima was the crown prince but Ashoka was supported by Ministers especially Radhagupta. Ashoka killed 99 brothers sparing only one named Tissa.
  • During Bindusara’s reign
    • He served as a Viceroy at Ujjain and also at Taxila.
    • He was sent to Taxila to quell a revolt.
    • In Ujjain, he married the daughter of the merchant of  Vidisha. Two children i.e. Mahinda and Sanghamita were born out of this union. His stay at Ujjain is described in the Sri Lankan chronicles as his son Mahinda introduced Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
  • Until hundred years ago in India, Ashoka was merely one of the many kings mentioned in the Mauryan dynastic list. In 1837, James Princep deciphered an inscription written in Brahmi but King was referred to as Devampiya Piyadassi (the beloved of the gods, pleasant to behold). We came to know about Ashoka in 1915, from Masaki Edict where King calls himself Devampiya Ashoka.

Kalinga War and its impact

  • Rock Edict XIII describes the horrors and miseries of the Kalinga war.
  • Although Ashoka’s predecessors brought Deccan and South under control Kalinga was still outside Mauryan control.
  • Kalinga had strategic importance as it controlled the routes to South India both by land and sea.
  • Kalinga war took place eight years after Ashoka’s consecration.
  • According to the inscription, one lakh people were slain in the war. These figures are likely to be exaggerated, nevertheless, war was very devastating. Although on the battlefield Asoka, was victorious, the inscription goes on to describe his remorse. The violence of the war completely changed the personality of Ashoka and he left the policy of aggression. The policy of conquest through the war was given up and replaced by a policy of conquest through Dharma/Dhamma i.e. Dhammavijaya.

Ashoka and Buddhism

  • Ashoka had close connection with Buddhism . Buddhist tradition considers him exemplary king & devout Upasaka .
  • His generosity as patron of Sangha is reflected in following things
    • He is credited with redistributing relics of Buddha & enshrining them in stupas in important towns .
    • 84,000 Stupas were built by him .
    • He undertook pilgrimage to all major places connected with Buddha’s life . 
  • Ashoka was ardent follower of Buddha’s teachings
    • He had position of influence vis-a-vis Sangha  .
    • In Bairat Edict , Ashoka greets Sangha & profess his deep faith in Buddha , Dhamma & Sangha  .
    • Schism Edict  warns members of the order against causing any division in the ranks .
    • Rummindei & Nigali Sagar inscriptions point towards fact that  Ashoka visited Lumbini & announced tax concessions .
  • Ashoka in Buddhist texts
    • Buddhist texts present Ashoka as vile & evil man until he came under influence of Buddha’s dhamma & represent Ashoka’s following of Buddhism as sudden transformative event .

Ashoka & 3rd Buddhist Council

  • According to Theravada Chronicles,  Ashoka convened great (3rd) Buddhist council in 250 BCE at Pataliputra presided by Moggaliputta Tissa in order to purge Sangha of certain unacceptable practices .
  • An important outcome of this Council was the decision to expand the reach of Buddhism to other parts of the region and to send missions to convert people to the religion. Buddhism thus became a proselytizing religion.
  • Buddhist Missions by Ashoka were sent to following places
Sri Lanka Mahinda and Sangamitta (son and daughter of Ashoka).It is believed that they took a branch of the original bodhi tree to Sri Lanka.
Suvarnabhumi (South Easy Asia) Under Sona
North West  
Central India  

Ashoka’s Dhamma

  • Contents of Dhamma were selected in a way that it should be acceptable to majority of people of different communities .
  • It stressed on 
    • Showing consideration towards slaves and servants .
    • Obedience to elders .
    • Generosity towards needy Brahmanas and Sramanas.
    • Tolerance of different religious sects to create harmony.
    • Non-violence was to be practised by giving up war and conquests and restraint on  killing of animals.
    • Welfare measures, like planting of trees, digging of wells, etc.
    • Attack on ceremonies and sacrifices practised regularly on various occasions like birth, marriage etc .
  • Officers known as Dhamma Mahamattah were instituted to implement & publicise various aspects of Dhamma.

Interpretations of Dhamma

  • Ashokan policy of Dhamma has been issue of  debate & controversy .
  • Buddhist records credit him with the propagation of Buddhism in India and abroad. But one cannot, however, lay the charge of being partisan against Ashoka. There are two strong arguments to prove that Ashoka, as an Emperor, did not favoured Buddhism at  expense of other  faiths.
    1. Creation of institution of  Dhammamahamattas – Had it been to promote Buddhism ,  organisation of Sangha could be used to propagate Dhamma.
    2. Careful study of Rock Edicts depicts that Ashoka wanted to promote tolerance & duty of  Dhammamahamattas included working for the Brahmanas and the Sramans.
  • Some historians believe that
    • Ashoka’s banning of sacrifices and the favour that he showed to the Buddhists led to a Brahmanical reaction. This in turn led to the decline of the Mauryan Empire (HC RAYCHAUDARY) .
    • Others believe that the stopping of wars and emphasis on non-violence crippled the military might of the Empire. This led to the collapse of the empire, after the death of Ashoka.
  • It has been shown by Romila Thapar that Ashoka’s Dhamma, apart from being a superb document of his essential humaneness was also an answer to the socio-political needs of the contemporary situation.
    • That it was not anti-Brahmanical is proved by the fact that respect for the Brahmanas and Sramans was an integral part of his Dhamma.
    • His emphasis on non-violence did not blind him to the needs of the state. Thus, addressing the forest tribes he warns them that although he hates to use coercion he may be required to resort to force if they continue to create trouble.

By the time Ashoka stopped war, the entire Indian sub-continent was under his control. In deep south he was on friendly terms with the Cholas and Pandyas. Sri Lanka was an admiring ally. Thus, Ashoka’s no to war came at a time when his empire had reached its natural boundaries.

4. Post Ashoka rulers

  • The subsequent history of the Mauryas under his successors is very inadequately known. This is because a state of disintegration seemed to have set in immediately after Ashoka’s death.
  • The tenth and the last of the Mauryas was Brihadratha who  was murdered by his general Pushyamitra and who ascended the throne in 187 BCE. The empire founded by him is known as Sunga Dynasty.
  • With Brihadratha’s death (187 BCE) this historic rule of the Mauryas came to an end within less than half a century of Ashoka’s death and 137 years since its foundation by Chandragupta Maurya.

Polity and Administration of Mauryan State

  • Mauryan state was an Empire. Empire is a political system which has  vast expanse of territories under it’s control, not all of which is culturally homogeneous . They are different from the Kingdoms in following ways  :-
    • Kingdoms  draw maximum profit from existing resources and do not make  attempt at restructuring access to resources.
    • Pressures on the Empire are many as administrating a large empire with vast administrative machinery requires huge financial resources . According to the Arthasastra, the salary of chief minister, the purohita and the army commander was 48,000 panas, and the soldiers received 500 panas. If we multiply this by the number of infantry and cavalry, we get an idea of the enormous resources needed to maintain the army and the administrative staff. Hence, Empires try to restructure economy in order to increase the revenue base of the state .
  • Mauryan Empire tried to increase their revenue base by 
    • Extension of agriculture 
    • Setting new cities
    • Promoting trade
  • Although they rarely succeed, Imperial Systems attempt to erase variation in favour of homogeneity . Ashoka’s dhamma was an attempt to bring homogeneity .

1 . Central Administration


  • Maurya Empire was a Monarchy with king as Supreme authority  .
  • He took all important decisions concerning the empire.
  • He was assisted by a council of ministers who acted as the king’s advisors.
  • King started to have  paternal attitude towards his subjects. In the Dhauli inscription Asoka states , “All men are my children and just as I desire for my children that they should obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same do I desire for all men.”
  • By adoption of the title Devanampiya (beloved of the Gods) by Asoka; according to Romila Thapar,  “an attempt was made to emphasize the connection between kingship and divine power.”

Council of Ministers

  • Arthashastra & Ashokan inscriptions mention Council of Minister. Megasthenes also mentioned  SUMBOULAI .
  • Arthashastra quotes that it was impossible for King to rule single handedly (like Single Spoke cant turn  wheel) .
  • Primary role of Council of Minister was that of an advisory body. Final authority was vested with the King.
  • We do get references about 18 departments  of the central government in the Arthasastra. 

2. Regional Administration

  • After its territorial expansion , state established administrative control at the Provincial and Local Levels.

Provincial Administration

  • Each province was headed by – Kumara (Royal Prince) , who was King’s representative in Province .  Eg Ashoka was Kumara of Ujjain & Taxila  .
  • Kumara was assisted by Mahamatyas & a Council of Ministers.
  • From Asokan edicts –  names of four provincial capitals were
    • Tosali (in the east)
    • Ujjain (in the west)
    • Suvarnagiri (in the south)
    • Taxila (in the north)

District  Administration

  • Province was further divided to Districts .
  • Officials listed at the level of district during this period were
    • Pradeshta (overall incharge of district), 
    • Rajuka : Survey of lands (rajuka derived from rajju, meaning rope)
    • Yukta
  • King was in direct touch with these officers. In the 4th Pillar Edict -Ashoka grants to the Rajuka  “independent authority” to carry out some of his instructions in relation to public welfare.

Village Administration

  • Local people were involved in the Village Administration.
  • Village head was known as Gramani. He was assisted by Gram Sabha .
  • Apart from that, there were intermediaries between district and village administration . These were Gopa (administer 5-10 villages) and Sthanika (administers 800 villages)  .

3. City Administration

City Administration according to Megasthenes

  • Megasthenes has described administration in Palibothra (Patliputra)
  • According to Megasthenes, there was 30 membered city council  divided into six committees of 5 members each  to administer city. These were
    1. 1st committee looked after industry  and crafts
    2. 2nd Committee looked after  foreigners ( arranging food,stay & comfort,security, etc.)
    1. 3rd Committee looked after registration of births and deaths.
    1. 4th Committee looked after inspection of weights and measures .
    2. 5th Committee looked after inspection of  manufactured goods .
    3. 6th Committee collected taxes on goods sold at rate of 1/10th.

City Administration according to Arthashastra

  • No mention of such committees is found  in the Arthashastra . But reference of equivalent Officers in Arthashastra were present . Eg :
    • Work of 4th  committee  was performed by Pautavadhyaksa .
    • Collection of taxes (Sixth Committee) was performed by Sulkadhyaksha  .
  • According to Arthashastra
    • Head of the urban administration was Nagariaka.
    • He was assisted by two subordinate officials called Gopa and Sthanika.
  • Law enforcers in the city were called Rakshina .

4. Army

  • Retreat of Seleucus, descriptive account of army administration in Arthashastra and the violent Kalinga war   point towards a large and well organized military of Mauryas.
  • According to Pliny’s account  , Chandragupta’s army consisted of 9,000 elephants, 30,000 cavalry and 6,00,000 infantry.
  • According to Megasthenes 
    • There were 6 Branches of army – infantry, cavalry, elephants, chariots, transport & admiral of  fleet .
    • Each branch was looked after by a committee of 5 members.
  • Kautilya has referred to Chaturangabala (i.e. infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants) as the main components of the army –each under a commander . Eg
    • Rathadhyaksha headed chariots .
    • Hastyadhyaksha headed elephant force.

5. Espionage System

  • Espionage was important part of Mauryan Administration.
  • Main tasks of the spies recruited involved:
    • Keeping an eye over  ministers
    • Reporting on government officials
    • Collecting impressions regarding the feelings of citizens
    • Know the secrets of foreign rulers, etc.
  • Arthashastra  divided Spies (Gudhapurusha) into three type
Samsthan Positioned at one place
Sanchara Roamed about
Ubhayavetana Doubly Paid

6. Law & Justice

  • Arthasastra is full of codes listing punishments for various offences.
  • There were various kinds of courts to settle disputes at various levels.
Gramani Had judicial powers at village level .
Dharmasthiya Courts to decide civil cases .
Kantakasodhana Courts to decide criminal cases.
Kanhkmaba Courts which decided upon matters related to individuals and the state.
  • Punishment for crimes range from fines to mutilation of limbs to death.
  • Ashokan edicts mention that each 5th year king would despatch a gentle officer , neither fierce nor harsh on a tour to ensure that justice was being done  .

7. Revenue Administration

  • According to Arthashastra ,  different resources from where revenue flowed into the state treasury (Kosa) were rural areas, cities, roads , pastures , plantations, forests and mines.
  • Tax on agricultural produce constituted the most important source of revenue. Usually, the king was entitled to one-sixth of the produce.
  • Kosa/ Treasury was looked after by an official Sannidhata (Chief Accountant) .
  • The state was also empowered to impose taxes in case of emergency for increasing its earnings.
  • King had the right of granting remission of land revenue as Ashoka reduced the Bhaga of the village Lumbini to 1/8 and scrapped Bali altogether.

8. Public Works

State took keen interest in public works. Account  of Megasthenes and  Arthasastra corroborate this

  • Irrigation  : Tanks like Sudarshan Tadaga in Junahgarh .
  • Medical facilities were available to both men and animals.
  • State also helped its citizens during natural calamities like floods, famines, etc.
  • Laying down and repair of roads and opening of inns.

Society in Maurayan Empire

  • Arthashastra recommended 4 fold varna system in society but how far that was followed is debatable. Eg : Pushymitra Shunga , a Brahmin who overthrew Mauryan Empire was Commander in Chief of Mauryas .
  • Megasthenes divided Indian people into 7 strata  i.e. Philosophers, Farmers, Herdsmen & Hunter, Artisans & Traders, Soldiers, Overseers & King’s Counsellors . It seems Megasthenes’s own creation although it is possible to be modelled on Herodotus’s classification of Egyptian  society into similar 7 strata.
  • Untouchability
    • There was significant hardening of Brahmanical position on untouchability .
    • Well of Chandalas could only be used by them & none else .Chandalas  were known as Antavasayin (living at end) suggesting that they lived on margins of settlement .
  • Women
    • There reference of king’s women bodyguard in Arthashastra .
    • Women were also  employed by the state as spies and performers.
    • Women of the upper castes who had become widowed, deserted wives  or ageing prostitutes could get work from the state, such as spinning yarn .
    • Female ascetics were known, but were few and far between .
    • Kautilya in his Arthashastra argued that prostitutes should also be taxed  .
  • Surprisingly, there is no mention of either varna or jati in the Ashokan edicts, which may suggest that they were not yet so prominent as social categories. 
  • Tensions in Society
    • Ashoka’s emphatic plea for social harmony and repeated calls for equal respect towards brahmans and shramanas suggest that there were social tensions.

Economy during Mauryan Times

1. Agriculture

  • Mauryan State was producing substantial agriculture surplus because of use of iron  in agriculture started  and start of paddy cultivation in North India   .
  • The Greeks noted with wonder that two crops could be raised annually in India because of the fertility of the soil.
  • Due to growth in agriculture, cultivator  assumed  important role. Megasthenes in his seven classes mentions the farmers as the second class suggesting it was numerically large class .
  • Essential resources needed for Mauryan State could only be got from land revenue. Hence, Arthasastra is careful in designing efficient revenue system of the State.
Bhaga – King’s share of produce  .
Levied at the rate of 1/6th of the produce.
Bali – Tax on the area of land cultivated .
Udaka Bhaga – Water tax if irrigation facility of state is used
1/6 to 1/3 of produce
  • Lumbini(Rummindei)  Edict states that when Ashoka visited Lumbini i.e. birthplace of the Buddha, he exempted payment of Bali and reduced the payment of Bhaga to 1/8. Even Asoka’s great respect for the Buddha did not prompt the emperor to exempt the village totally from the payment of taxes.
  • State took steps to provide Irrigation . Eg:  Pushyagupta, governor of Chandragupta Maurya, built a dam in  Girnar (Saurashtra) known as Sudarshana tadaga (water tank).

2. Trade & Urban Economy

  • Mauryan state wanted to expand trade and commerce . For this, they established  new state founded walled  towns and markets .

Improved Transport

  • River transport was improved because forests around the Valleys were cleared .
  • There was an officer called Agronomoi whose function was to maintain Royal Road and put distance markers after every 10 Stadia (10 Stadia = 0.5 Mile)  . 

State Control on Trade

  • The sale of merchandise , in theory, was strictly supervised. Goods were required to be stamped (to distinguish between the old and the new) .
  • According to Megasthenes , tax was one-tenth of the sale proceeds and failure to pay this tax was punishable with death.
  • Arthashastra recommends  appointment of following officers related to Trade
    1. Panyadhyaksha : Superintendent of Trade to fix price of goods
    2. Pautavadyaksha : Superintendent of weights and measures
    3. Navadhyaksha : Superintendent of State boats
    4. Sulkadhyaksha : Superintendent of taxes , tolls and custom dues


  • According to Arthashastra, State enjoyed a monopoly in mines and trade in mineral products.
  • Arthasastra provides for a superintendent of mines called  Akara-dhyaksha   – to look for new mines & reopen old ones.

Causes of Decline of Mauryan Empire

Ashoka ruled for thirty-seven years and died in about 232 BCE . Subsequently, a political decline set in and the empire began to break up. The last of the Mauryas, Brihadratha, was assassinated during an inspection of the troops by the brahman Pushyamitra, the commander of the army. Pushyamitra founded the successor Shunga dynasty .

1 . Role of Ashoka

Debate 1Revolt of the brahmans because of his pro-Buddhist policy ( by HP Shastri)

  • But this can be challenged because
    • His general policy was not an active proselytizing in favour of Buddhism at expense of Brahmanism. 
    • Respect to both brahmans and shramanas was part of Ashoka’s Dhamma.
  • Buddhism’s more extensive spread happened in post Mauryan Period due to patrons in form  of Mercantile Community and not due to Ashoka.

Debate 2 : Pacific policy of Asoka (by HC Raychaudhary)

  • It is argued that his obsession with non-violence led to the emasculation of army,  laying the country open to invasion.
  • But Edicts prove that this was not the case. His open threat to Tribals to mend their ways otherwise they would be crushed & his advice to his sons and grandsons on the use of violence prove that army was still powerful .

However, a long reign marked by only one military campaign in the early years may have adversely affected the preparedness of the army, and this may have been a factor responsible for the success of the Greek invasions.

More probable reasons are to be found elsewhere.

2. Pressure on Mauryan Economy (By DD KAUSAMBI)

  • There was need for vast revenues to
    1. Maintain large army
    2. To finance the salaries of  upper levels of  bureaucracy
    3. Cost of establishing settlements on newly cleared land
  • This  strained the treasury. Debasement of silver coins in  later Mauryan period shows severe pressure on  economy and lack of resource to maintain the structure .

3. Structure of Mauryan Administration (By Romila Thapar)

  • Mauryan bureaucracy was centralized, with the ruler – or king – as the key figure towards whom loyalty was directed. A change of king meant a re-alignment of loyalty .
  • Recruitment was arbitrary, with local governors choosing their officers  hence, there was  possibility of particular social groups monopolizing administrative control in certain areas  .
  • Lack of representative institutions to stabilize public opinion . They used espionage to stabilise public opinion which must have created manifold tensions in the administration.

4. Invasions in North-West

  • After the demise of Ashoka, North-West saw invasion by Bactrian Greeks (because they were pushed by Parthians & Scythians) which destabilized the Empire  .

Absence of nationalism, the idea of loyalty to the state rather than to a particular king, and the lack of popular representative institutions and absence of Chinese-type examination system  in Maurya India  are not very helpful in explaining the decline of the Maurya empire.

All empires rely on mechanisms of integration and control over territory, resources, and people. These mechanisms include military force, administrative infrastructure, and ideology. In the case of the Mauryas, given the vast contours of the empire, all three must have been strained to their utmost. It was just a matter of time before the distant provinces broke away from the centre.

Persian and Macedonian Attacks

Persian and Macedonian Attacks

This article deals with ‘Persian and Macedonian Attacks’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.

Persian  Invasions

  • In 6th Century, Persian empire extended upto north-western borders of subcontinent .
  • Greek historian Herodotus mentions that  India (Indus Valley) was the 20th & most prosperous satrapy of Persian empire & tribute from province was more than tribute from all other provinces put together .


  • He was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia .
  • He invaded Indian border­land  and captured the Gandhara region

Darius (522 – 486 BCE)

  • Darius I (522-486 BCE)  made the real advance in India. He invaded India and occupied the territories in the North-Western Frontier Province, Sind and Punjab . These parts remained with the Persian Empire till Alexander’s invasion of India.
  • According to Herodotus (historian) , Gandhara formed the 20th satrapy of the empire of Darius paying a tribute of 360 talents of gold dust.  It was the most fertile and populous province of the Achaemenian Empire. Herodotus has also recorded that Darius sent a naval expedition probably in 517 BCE to explore the Indus basin.


  • Xerxes kept the control of Indian possessions but due to requisitioning of large number of troops for invasion of Greece, failed to make any advances in India.
  • Xerxes suffered defeat in Greece which led to the decline of Persian Empire . However, the Achaemenid rule over India continued up to 330 BCE . In that year Darius III, the last of the Achaemenid ruler summoned Indian troops to fight against Alexander . With the fall of the Persian power under the impact of the invasion of Alexander the Great, the Persian hold over India was lost.

Impact of Persian Invasions on India

Political Impact India learnt the necessity of a strong and united empire to repel the foreign invasions and realized how essential it was to join hands together to meet the common enemy.  
Encouragement to trade The Persian rulers did much to promote geographical exploration and promote trade. The exploration of the Indus and the Arabian Sea by Scylax opened a new water-route.  
Settlement of Foreigners on Indian Soil A large number of foreigners, Greek, Persians  etc. settled down in the North-Western parts of India. With the passage of time they were completely absorbed among the Indians.
On Architecture Traces of the Persian influence can be seen in the Mauryan sculptures and in the Ashokan pillars. The polish of the Mauryan pillars manifests the Persian influence. Ashoka also followed the Iranian custom of preaching ideals by inscribing them on the stone pillars.  Similarly, the pillared remains of the Palace in Pataliputra display a remarkable similarity to the pillared hall in the Achaemenid capital.  
Kharosthi Script The Aramaic form of writing which the Persians introduced in the north-western India after their conquest, gradually developed into the Kharoshti script. It was written from right to left .  
On Coinage The Persian silver coins were in circulation in India. This affected Indian coinage. The Persian coins were known for their refined minting and elegant looks. The Indian rulers adopted similar techniques to mint their coins on the Persian model.

Alexander Invasion (327-26 BCE)

  • In 327-26 BCE , North West Indian Subcontinent suffered the invasion of Alexander .
  • Persian hold over Indian provinces was nominal or non existent at that time . Alexander defeated the armies of Darius III (Persian king) established various outposts in Afghanistan & ventured into India . Greek historians make great deal of Alexanders siege of Hill fort of Arnos because tradition says that even god Herakles was unable to take that .
  • In 326 BCE , he ventured into India after crossing Indus . Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila, surrendered and accepted the suzerainty of Alexander. The most famous of Alexander’s encounters was with Porus, ruler of the region between Jhelum and Beas. The two armies met in the battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) in which Porus was imprisoned. Later, impressed by the Porus’s dignity, Alexander restored his throne on the condition of accepting his suzerainty.
  • Alexander captured area till Ravi but movement beyond Beas was prevented because of resistance of his own soldiers who were tired by many years of wars & wanted to go back .
  • Alexander retreated back . Areas lying west of Punjab were entrusted with Satraps (governors) & Macedonian garrisons were placed there.
  • Alexander died two years later of a mysterious fever in Babylon.

One of the results of Alexander’s invasion was creation of Seleucid principality in North-West & establishment of several Greek settlements in that area including Boukephala, Nikaia & several Alexandrias  .

Effects of Alexander invasion

  • Trade routes opened up with the West. As trade contact increased, many Greek settlements were established in the northwest of India. Alexandria near Kabul, Boukephala near Peshawar in Pakistan and Alexandria in Sindh were some of the prominent Greek settlements.
  • Indirectly this invasion made possible the establishment of Indo-Bactrian and Indo-Parthian states, which at a later stage considerably influenced Indian architecture (Gandhara school of sculpture), astronomy, coinage etc.
  • The invasion opened the eyes of Indian politicians to the necessity of creating a unified empire
  • The date of the Invasion of Alexander is the ‘first reliable date in early Indian history’ and considerably helps in solving chronological difficulties. Greek historians began to write about India .

Rise of Magadha

Rise of Magadha

This article deals with ‘Rise of Magadha’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


Among the 16 Mahajanapadas, Kasi was initially powerful. However, Kosala became dominant later. A power struggle broke out between Magadha, Kosala, Vrijji and Avanti. Eventually Magadha emerged as the dominant Mahajanapada and established the first Indian empire.

Rise of Magadha under the Haryanka Dynasty

1 . Bimbisara

  • Bimbisara is the first known ruler of Magadha .
  • He was the first ruler to introduce matrimonial alliances for strategic purposes . He married following
Khema   Daughter of Madra king of Punjab
Mahakosala Sister of Prasenjit of Kosala  & got kashi in dowry
Chellna Lichchhavi Princess
  • He had great  army (according to Jain texts).
  • Bimbisara was contemporary of both Mahavira & Buddha and met Buddha 7 years before enlightenment . Buddha visited his capital after enlightenment as he promised earlier.
  • His capital was Girivraja (identified as Rajgriha)
  • He was killed by his son Ajatshatru  .

2 . Ajatshatru

  • He killed Bimbisara &  Mahakosala  died in shock . Her brother, King Prasenjit took back Kashi which was earlier given in dowry . This

led to a military confrontation between Magadha and Kosala. The struggle lasted until Prasenjit was overthrown .

  • Ajatashatru also fought and won the battle against the Lichchhavis. During this war, he sent his minister Vassakara to  create dissension . He also used new weapons named (1) Mahshilakantaka i.e. catapult to  throw large stones and (2) Rathamusala (chariot with blades attached on wheels).
  • On Buddha’s demise , Ajatshatru is said to have gone to Kusinagara to claim portion of his relics . He built many stupas around Rajgriha and organised first buddhist council
When Immediately after death of  Buddha
Where At hall erected by him outside Sattapani caves in Rajgir
Presided by Elder Mahakasyapa
  • He was also killed by his own son Udayen .

3. Udayen

  • Udayen developed Pataliputra as city .
  • He was killed by his own son .

Later kings

  • Later kings like  Anurudha and  Nagadaska also suffered PATRICIDE .
  • Hence, revolt broke and Haryanka dynasty was thrown away by Shishunaga Dynasty

Shishunaga Dynasty

1 . Shishunaga

  • Shishunaga was the Governor of Haryanka & did  coup d’état.
  • He ruled from Girivraja & seemed to have second capital at Vaishali  .

2. Kalashoka

  • During his reign Pataliputra became capital of Magadha .
  • He organised & sponsored 2nd Buddhist Council
Where Vaishali
When 383 BC
Headed by Sabakami
Disputes There was dispute on 10 points Storing salt in horn Eating after mid day Eating once Going to villages for alms Eating sour milk after one’s meal etc
Outcomes No consensus emerged and Buddhist sects began to appear for first time.
  • Last king of this dynasty was Nandivardhana . Shaishunaga dynasty came to bitter end . King and his sons were killed , making way for Nanda dynasty

Nanda Dynasty (345-321 AD)

  • Puranic , Buddhist & Jaina tradition agree that there were 9 Nanda kings . Mahapadma Nanda was succeeded by his eight sons, and they were together known as the navanandas or the nine Nandas.
  • Nandas build on the foundations of Haryanka & Shishunaga dynasty & emerged as the first great empire in North India .
  • Nandas were thought  of low origin with some sources stating that  dynasty’s founder, Mahapadma Nanda, was the son of a Shudra mother.

Mahapadma Nanda = Empire Builder

  • Mahapadma Nanda usurped the throne by murdering the last of the Shishunaga kings.
  • Mahapadma Nanda has been described in  Puranas as “the destroyer of all the Kshatriyas”. He defeated many other kingdoms, including Panchalas, Haihayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Kurus , Surasenas etc.
  • He is known as Ekrat (Sole king).
  • He conquered Kalinga . Hathigumpha inscription of Kharvela (of Kalinga) also mentions the conquest of Kalinga by Nanda.
  • He also expanded his territory south of the Vindhya range, into the Deccan plateau .
  • Mahapadma Nanda is described as the first empire builder in the recorded history of India.
    • He inherited the large kingdom of Magadha built by Haryanka & Shishunaga dynasty .
    • But he wanted to extend it to yet more distant frontiers. For this he built up a vast army.  According to Diodorus and  Rufus (Roman historian) , his army consisted  of 2 lakh infantry, 20 thousand  cavalry, 2 thousand war chariots and 3,000 war elephants.
    • Such was the  fear of Nanda army that when Alexander  invaded India (Dhana Nanda was the ruler at that time ), he confined his campaign to the plains of Punjab as his forces were frightened by the prospect of facing Nanda army & mutinied at Hyphasis River (the modern Beas River) .
Rise of Magadha

Reasons why Magadha emerged as strongest of all Mahajanapadas

  1. In Republics of North-eastern India (Malla, Vajji) , there was no centralisation due to common ownership of land by the kshatriyas . On the other hand, in the Monarchies of upper Ganga , Vedic sacrifices led to wasteful consumption . Magadha  located in the mid Ganga plains had no such limitations.
  2. Magadha had the advantage of
    • Rich soil &  history of rice cultivation .
    • Good rainfall, irrigated land and bandhs used as water reserves .
    • It was close to the mines and minerals of Singhbhum .
    • Forest of Rajmahal hills for procuring timber and elephants.
  3. Geographical Position
    • Old capital Rajgriha was surrounded by perimeter of 5 easily defendable hills .
    • New capital Pataliputra was protected due to location at Ganga & Son .
  4. Both Uttarapatha & Dakshinapatha passed through Magadha leading to high volumes of trade . River Ganges  which flowed through the heart of Magadha was the high route of trade   .
  5. Due to foreign invasions like
    • Achaemenians in 6th century B.C
    • Macedonians in 4th Century B.C.
    • infiltration of foreign races
    • Demands started to raise that there was need of central paramount power on the subcontinent  to defend it from foreign invasions. It  prepared the country to submit to Magadhan hegemony.
  6. An unbroken chain of very able and extraordinary monarchs ascended the Magadhan throne like Shishunaga, Bimbisara, Ajatasatru, Mahapadma and Chandragupta . They were fortunate in having great ministers and diplomats like Vassakara, Kautilya and Radha Gupta .

This marks the end of our article on topic ‘Rise of Magadha.’



This article deals with ‘Mahajanapadas’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


  • During this period , people began to settle on lands and started to call certain areas to be their own  . Hence, Janapadas emerged .
  • Kings, Monks and monarchs emerged on the stage of history.
  • This was the age of intense philosophical speculation . Buddhism, Jainism and many other heterodox sects emerged  as well.

Sources of Information

1 . Literary Sources 

Literary sources include

  1. Brahmanas : Brahmanas (eg Shatapatha Brahmana) are the category of Vedic texts which deals with the methods of performing Vedic rituals. 
  2. Puranas :Puranas provide useful dynastic history .
  3. Upanishads : Upanishads deal with the philosophical problems of the period and were composed 800 BCE onwards.
  4. Buddhist Texts : Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka were composed during this period and they  give us graphic descriptions of the contemporary society.
  5. Ashtadhayayi : It is the book on Sanskrit grammar written by Panini in 5th-4th century BCE. Panini mapped out the grammatical rules as it existed in his time .  His book became landmark in history of Sanskrit from Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit . Ashtadhayayi is work of grammar but in order to illustrate the rules of grammar , Panini referred incidentally to many aspects of his time – places, people, customs, institutions, coins, weights & measures .

2. Archaeological sources

  • Iron objects such as hoes, sickles, knives, hooks, nails, arrowheads, vessels and mirrors confirm the widespread use of iron technology.
  • Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) is the characteristic pottery of this period.
  • Textiles, beads,, ivory objects, ceramics and glassware and artefacts of other metals are found.
  • A large number of terracotta artefacts have also been found.
  • Sites belonging to this period include series of punch marked coins which marked use of money in subcontinent .

Developments in the Gangetic Plains

Development of Agriculture

  • Agriculture improved during this phase in the middle Gangetic plains creating the necessary surplus as
    1. Wet rice cultivation began to yield more produce of rice than other crops.
    2. Iron technology also played a crucial role.
  • Reasons for improvement of agriculture were 
Use of Iron Iron axes could be used to clear forests and iron plough shares could facilitate agricultural operations. Iron ploughshare increased the productivity of land .
Practice of wet rice cultivation This was especially useful in the Middle Gangetic Valley. Wet rice cultivation is substantially higher than those  of wheat or millet in traditional agriculture, leading to creation of large surplus .
Rise of Organised State State helped in establishment of new settlements by shifting surplus population from overpopulated areas, providing  cattle, seed, money and irrigational facilities and providing remission of taxes and other concessions to peasants in new establishments
Role of Buddhism Buddhism was against sacrifices . It insisted on the protection of cattle and preservation of cattle wealth for agricultural purposes was encouraged .
  • Leisure time provided by agricultural surplus and technology led to growth of crafts, which in turn aided vibrant trade.

Second Urbanisation

  • Agricultural surplus, the growth of crafts and trade, and the growing population led to the emergence of towns in the Gangetic plains. This is called the second urbanisation in Indian history after the first urbanisation evident  in the Harappan Civilization.


  • The Later Vedic period (1000–600 BCE) witnessed the transition from a tribal polity based on lineage to a territorial state.  The loyalty of the people shifted from  Jana (tribe or clan) to Janapada (territory). The Janapadas fought with one another for resources and political dominance. Some Janapadas extended their territories and brought various Janas within their jurisdiction. Such Janapadas grew into Mahajanapadas .
  • In Mahajanapadas,
    1. The king headed the government aided by a centralised administration.
    2. The king was also the sovereign ruler.
    3. The king levied taxes out of agricultural surplus and redistributed it and ensured maintenance of law and order in a hierarchical society by force and coercion.

16 Mahajanapadas

  • According to Puranic, Buddhist and Jaina traditions, there were 16 Mahajanapadas. These were
    1. Gandhara
    2. Kamboja
    3. Assaka
    4. Vatsa
    5. Avanti
    6. Shurasena
    7. Chedi
    8. Malla
    9. Kuru
    10. Panchala
    11. Matsya
    12. Vajji (Vrijji)
    13. Anga
    14. Kasi
    15. Kosala
    16. Magadha
  • The Mahajanapadas are further classified as Gana-Sanghas and Monarchies based on the nature of their polity.


  • Gana-Sanghas were oligarchies, which were centred on clans.
  • These kingdoms did not come under the single decision-making authority of a king but decisions were taken on a collective basis by the heads of the different clans together.
  • Powerful monarchies have large standing armies but such organisation may be absent in Gana-Sanghas . Their  military defeats from monarchical states was because of  inability  of military system to meet challenge of empire building.
  • Varna organisation did not determine social status . Two broad categories were those who owned land and those who laboured on it. Brahmans might not have enjoyed same prestige as there was hardly any reference of gift to Brahmana .
  • Two Mahajanapadas –  Vajji & Malla were Gana-Sanghas.

Side Topic : Were Gana-Sanghas Republic?

  • Translation of this as Republic is misleading . These were oligarchies where power was vested in heads of leading Kshatriya families with no single hereditary monarch  .
  • Early studies on ganas by nationalist historians tended to glorify them by exaggerating their democratic features . Comparisons were made with republics of Greece & Rome & modern political institutions . Lot was to disprove the assertion of western scholars that Indians had never known anything other than despotic rule .
  • Their governance was marked by Corporate element . Arthashastra (a later text although) outlines special strategies that ‘to be conqueror’ could use to vanquish ganas (advise focussed on creating dissension among their ranks) .


  • Monarchical states had the king as head .
  • There was well developed taxation system with standing armies .
  • Vedic orthodoxy was an established practice in these kingdoms. The priestly class enjoyed a preeminent status in the Mahajanapadas .  The Brahman priests provided the legitimacy to the king through various rituals.
  • The kingship was hereditary and the succession was in most cases based on the law of primogeniture.
  • The king was assisted by councils called Parishad and Sabha. The councils were advisory in nature.
  • There was well developed taxation system in Monarchical states. The revenue thus raised was used to maintain elaborate administrative system and army.


Rural Economy

  • here was emergence of the  private property in land
  • Agriculture started to produce surplus which led to rise of urban centres.
  • State also encouraged expansion of agriculture .

Urban Economy

  • This period led to the start of 2nd Urbanism .
  • Formation of states gave impetus to Urban economy. Small aristocracy which extracted taxes started to demand luxurious items giving push to artistic activities and trade .
  • Age of barter trade was almost over. Punch marked coins  of copper & silver came to use  . 
Economy of Mahajanapadas


  • There was shift in geographical region to Upper & Middle Gangetic Plains .
  • This period led to the institutionalisation of inequality in the society and hardening of caste system  .
  • Practice of untouchability started . Dharmasutras equated them with crows & dogs. Contact even accidental was considered polluting .
  • Strict control over women’s sexuality was practiced as it was essential for the patrilineal transmission of property and for maintenance and perpetuation of  endogamous caste structure. 
  • Wandering Ascetics
    • Paribrajakas and Sramanas. These were people who had renounced families
    • They travelled from place to place and held discussions on  meaning of life, society and spirituality.
    • Among them were Buddha and Mahavira .  

Vedic Period

Vedic Period

This article deals with ‘Vedic Period’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


  • Decline of Harappan cities was followed by another great civilisation and culture known as Vedic culture.
  • Vedic culture was the culture of the speakers of Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit, who would have entered  India from the north-west India.
  • Their initial settlements were in the valleys of the north-west and the plains of the Punjab. Later, they moved into Indo-Gangetic plains.
  • As they were mainly a cattle keeping people, they were mainly in search of pastures.
  • The period of Vedic Culture between 1500 B.C and 600 B.C may be divided into
    1. Early Vedic Period or Rig Vedic Period (1500 B.C -1000 B.C)
    2. Later Vedic Period (1000B.C – 600 B.C)

Debate around original home of Aryans

The original home of the Aryans is a debatable question and different scholars have different view regarding this

  1. European Theory : Supported  by scholars like Sir William Jones , this theory was based on the similarity of all Indo-Aryan languages like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German etc. It states that Continent of Europe was the homeland of Aryans.
  2. Central Asian Theory : Supported by scholars like Max Muller , it argues that Central Asia was the original homeland of Aryans based on the similarities in ‘Avesta’ (Iranian text) and the ‘Vedas’.
  3. Artic Region Theory : Main proponent of this theory was Bal Gangadhar Tilak . According to this theory,  the Aryans came from the Arctic region based on the astronomical calculations.
  4. Indian Theory : This theory was supported by Dr. Sampurnanand and A.C. Das. They argued that Aryans were indigenous to the subcontinent. They argue that there are definite literary evidences in the Vedas that the Aryans regarded the Sapta Sindhu as their original home. Along with that, the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic Aryans having similarity with Harappan practices point towards their  Indian origin.

The most accepted view is that Aryans came to India from Central Asia from what is known as Andronovo culture . This is corroborated by similarities in the language of Rigveda and  Avesta ( oldest Iranian texts) along with other features like Cremation , Fire Cult etc. Apart from that, Genetic Marker called  M17 , found in 40% of Central Asian Steppe people is found in Speakers of Indo Aryan Language .

Also, there wasn’t any Aryan invasion but  there was a series of Indo-Aryan Immigrations and they came to the sub-continent as immigrants.

Sources of Vedic Period

There are two type of sources i.e. Archaeological and Literary Sources.

1 . Archaeological Sources

  • Early Vedic culture is correlated with some  Chalcolithic cultures of India especially Ochre Coloured Pottery Ware cultures.
  • On the other hand, Later Vedic culture is correlated with the Painted Grey Ware Culture of the Iron Age in North India.
  • But in contrast to Harappan Civilization, when the urban sites and farming cultures were present in a limited area, there was agricultural  expansion in many parts of India accompanied with growth of craft production and population.

2 . Literary Evidences

2.1 Vedas

Vedas (Vid = to know, Vidya) are one of the earliest known texts composed in India. The language of the Vedas is  Vedic Sanskrit. There are four Vedas i.e.  Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedic texts were memorized and orally transmitted by Brahmins from generation to generation. They were written down in the later period, after the introduction of writing.  The earliest known written manuscripts of the Vedas date to the 10-11th century CE.

a . Rig Veda

  • It is world’s oldest surviving poetry with extraordinary beauty & philosophical depth .
  • Total number of hymns are 1028 , arranged in 10 Books or Mandalas. These hymns personify forces of nature and try to control and appease them .
  • Books of Rig Veda are as follows
Books 2-7  – They are the oldest books & known as Family Books .
These books are dated between 1500 and 1000 BCE and represent the Earlier Vedic Age.
Their composition is attributed to families of seer poets – Gritasamada, Vishvamitra , Vamadeva, Atri, Bhardwaj & Vasishtha  .
Books 1,8,9,10 These books seems to be of younger age i.e. 1000 BCE onwards.

b . Sama Veda

  • There are total of 1810 hymns .
  • Most of the hymns are borrowed from Rig Veda & arranged according to needs of musical notations .
  • These hymns were used for singing in connection with sacrifices .

c . Yajur Veda

  • Yajur Veda consists partly of hymns & partly of prose sentence (yajus) . Most of hymns of Yajur Veda are taken from Rig Veda.
  • Yajur Veda deals with performance of rituals .

d . Atharva Veda

  • Atharva Veda is the latest Veda among four.
  • It consists of 781 hymns which are divided into 20 books.
  • It contains hymns ,  spells and charms which reflect the  popular beliefs  .
  • Great importance of Atharva Veda lies in the fact that it is the invaluable source of knowledge of the real popular belief as yet uninfluenced by the priestly religion 

Note : Tradition of Vedic chanting is included in the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

2.2 Brahmanas

  • Each Veda has Brahmanas which are prose explanation of the Samhita portions in terms  of sacrificial rituals & their outcomes. They reflect the spirit of an age in which all intellectual activity was concentrated on the sacrifice  .
  • Among most important Brahmanas are
Rig Veda Aitareya  Brahmana
Sama Veda Jaiminiya Brahmana
Yajur Veda Taittiriya Brahmana 
Atharva Veda Gopatha Brahmana

2.3 Aranyakas

  • Aranyakas are also known as ‘Forest Books.’ 
  • They were probably composed for the old men who had retired into forest & were unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring many articles . For them meditation became of superior merit .
  • These books interpret sacrificial rituals in a symbolic & philosophical way.

2.4 Upanishads

  • There are total of 108 Upanishads but 14 are considered principle .
  • Upanishads literally means to sit near someone &  is understood as referring to pupils sitting near  their teachers . Knowledge that was to be imparted  was not ordinary knowledge . It was all encompassing the key to liberation from cycle of birth, death & rebirth , something that could be taught to select deserving pupils .
  • In Upanishads , Indian society started to question the traditional Vedic religious order. The materialistic aspect of religion was discarded and Vedic religion was raised to realm of philosophical doctrine involving around the new concept of Atman (the indestructible soul) and  ‘Brahman’.
  • Note : Satyameva Jayate is taken from Mundaka Upanishad.

2.5 Vedangas

  • Vedangas are also known as the  limbs of the Vedas.
  • They include work such as
Srauta Sutras Deal with major rituals such as Ashvamedha and  Rajasuya .
Grihya Sutras Which lay down the norms for domestic rituals including rites of passage .
Dharma Sutras that lay down social norms .
Sulba Sutras laying down principle of geometry that were used for constructing the sacrificial altar .
  • These texts were also composed over a very long period of time, between c. 800 BCE to c. 200 BCE.

3 . Zend Avesta

  • Earliest part of Zend Avesta is attributed to 1400 BCE .
  • Zend Avesta deals with fire worship, horse sacrifice, cult of soma (or haoma in Avestan language) and there is similarity in name of gods and social classes with Vedas.

Horse Centeredness in Vedic Culture

  • Horse is indispensable trait of Aryan culture .
  • In Vedic & Avestan Texts , personal names are horse centred . Various Iranian chiefs in Avesta & various Iranian tribes mentioned by Herodotus were named after Horse .
  • In Rig Veda, name ASVA comes in various forms 215 times . No other animal was named so frequently. Even Cow (Go) word occurs 176 times.
  • Rig Veda has prayers to god to grant King with ‘Swift Horses’ and ‘Strong Sons’.
  • Various sacrifices and ceremonies involved Horse. Eg : Ashvamedha & Rajasuya (chariot race) Yajnas.

Arguments to prove that Harappan & Rig Vedic people werent’ same

  • Mode of living was different
    • Harappan civilization was an urban civilisation.
    • Rig Vedic people were pastoral and rural in nature.
  • Archaeological evidences show that
    • Harappan phase ended in 1900 BCE .
    • Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BCE .
  • Rig Vedic people were only aware of barley but Harappans were aware of wheat , sesamum, peas etc.
  • Vedic Chiefs were horse centred but Harappans weren’t aware of this animal.
  • Writing of both Civilisations was different. Rig Vedic people spoke Vedic Sanskrit whereas Harappan Script has not been deciphered yet.
  • Harappans practiced earth burials whereas Vedic people cremated the dead ones.

Culture reflected through Rig Veda Samhita

  • Historians divide Rig Vedic Corpus into two parts 
    • Early Vedic Texts : Family Books of Rig Vedic Samhita .
    • Later Vedic Texts : Books 1,8,9 & 10 of Rig Vedic Samhita  + Samhita of Sama, Yajur & Atharva Veda + Brahmanas, Aranyakas & Upanishads .
  • Cultural stages reflected in two broad strata of early & later Vedic texts have come to be known as early & later Vedic cultures .

Part 1: Early Rig Vedic Culture (1500 – 1000 B.C.)

During the Early Vedic period, the Aryans were mostly confined to the Indus region. They lived in the area of eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Punjab and fringes of Western Uttar Pradesh. Rig Veda mentions some of the rivers of Afghanistan like river Kubha along with Indus and it’s tributaries. It also mentions Saraswati which has been identified as Ghaggar-Hakra channel in Haryana and Rajasthan , but it’s Rig Vedic description shows it to be Avestan river Harakhvati or present day Helmand in Afghanistan.

Vedic Period

The political, social and cultural life of the Rig Vedic people can be traced from the hymns of the Rig Veda.

Political Organization

  • Rig Veda is pervaded with aura of wars .
  • Kinship was the basis of the social structure of Rig Vedic society. People were identified with specific clans and the clans formed the tribe or jana. People’s primary loyalty was to the tribe. About 30 tribes/Janas  have been mentioned in the Rig Veda . Purus & Bharatas were two dominant tribes. They initially seem to be allies but at some point fell apart .
  • Rig Vedas speak about not only the Aryans, but also about the non-Aryan people, whom the Aryans referred to as Dasas or Dasyus . Dasyus were dark native people who had different cultural practices. When the Rig Vedic people moved into India they came into conflict with these people .  
  • Prayers to Indra to defeat not only Dasa but also Arya enemies indicate there were conflicts between Aryans too .
  • Aryans are associated with introducing Age of Chariot , spoked wheel and were equipped with better weapons and horses. This gave them edge over original inhabitants.
  • Word Rajan occurs many times . Since full fledged monarchical state hadn’t emerged , it is best translated as chieftain  . His main task was to protect his people & lead them to victory in war.
  • Reference to Chieftain as Gopa /Gopati i.e. Lord of Cattles indicate protecting and increasing herd was his major role .
  • Royal priest accompanied Rajan to Battle , recited prayers & supervised performance of rituals.
  • Rig Veda mentions Sabha & Samitis . Such assemblies might have played important role in redistribution of resources . Apart from that, it acted as check on Rajan and Rajan couldn’t do anything without the approval of these bodies.
Sabha Seems to be smaller & more elite gathering
Samitis Larger assembly presided by Rajan

Social Life

1 . Absence of strict social hierarchy (Caste)

  • In family books, ‘Varna’ word occurs but it means ‘Colour’ . Word Brahmana & Kshatriya is frequently used in family books but word Varna in context of fourfold divided society is never used . Word Vaishya & Shudra is altogether absent .  (Purushasukta Hymn of Book 10 of Rig Veda was the first to speak about 4 fold division)
  • Absence of strict social hierarchy & existence of social mobility is suggested in book 3 by hymn –   ‘O Indra , fond of Soma , would you make me the protector of people or would you make me a king , would you make me a sage who drink soma , would you impart me endless wealth?’ 

2. Position of Women

  • 19th century socio-religious reformers & 20th century  nationalist historians  represented Vedic age as golden age for women . They pointed out that 
    1. Vedic people worshipped goddesses .
    2. Rig Veda contains hymns composed by women .
    1. Presence of women sages .
    2. Women took part in rituals along with their husbands .
    3. Women took part in chariot races .
    4. Women attended Sabha & various social gatherings .
    1. Rig Veda attaches importance to institution of marriage . Rituals indicate post puberty marriage & there are references of women choosing their husbands . Women could remarry if his husband disappeared  .
    1. Polyandry was present as Maruts are represented as living with Rodasi and two Asvin brothers lived with daughter of sun god .
  • But other scholars challenge it on following account
    1. Great part of discussion is about elite women ignoring less privileged ones.
    1. Although Rig Veda mentions goddesses but none of them is as important as major gods.
    2. Social implication of worship of female deities is complex . It shows ability of society to visualise divinity in women form but it doesn’t automatically mean that real women enjoyed power or privilege .
    3. Proportion of hymns attributed to women are minuscule 12-15  out of over 1000 .
    4. Women participated in Vedic rituals & sacrifices but as wives on behalf of his husband  .
    5. Vedic society was patrilineal &’patriarchal – women enjoyed little control over material resources .
    6. Rig Vedic prayers are for son & not daughter & absence of sons is deplored .

3. Nature of Household

  • Household was called  Dam which was under joint control of  husband and wife, called  dampati (dual).
  • Both sons and daughters seem to have been welcome in the dam.

4. Joint Family

  • There is single word to denote nephew, grandson , cousin etc. This imply that differentiation in family relationships leading to the setting up separate households had not occurred and family was a large joint unit.

5. Food

  • Wheat and barley, milk and its products like curd and ghee, vegetables and fruits were the chief articles of food.
  • However, the eating of cow’s meat was prohibited since it was a sacred animal and  was considered aghnya (not to be killed).
  • Drink known as SOMA consisted of the juice of Soma plant, mixed with milk, sour milk or yava (cereal) was their favourite . SURA seems to be intoxicating drink made by fermenting grain.

6. Leisure time

  • There are references to singing , dancing & musical instruments eg vina , vana &’drums. Dramas , Chariot racing & gambling with dice  were  source of entertainment .

Economic Condition


  • Prayers in Rigveda suggest that Early Vedic Economy was predominantly , if not exclusively , Pastoral in nature. It is corroborated by the references to cattle as wealth  and typical kind of animosity shown towards urbanity as Indra known as Purandara (breaker of Forts / Cities) .


  • Pastoralism was no doubt important but Agriculture cant be altogether ignored .
  • Archaeological evidence points to the development of agriculture among the Rig Vedic people.
  • The ploughshare is mentioned in the Rig Vedas. There are hymns in Rig Veda referring to levelling of fields for cultivation, desire for fertile fields  & producing rich harvests . There are prayers to Indra to  grant or enrich fields . Indra is also referred to as protector of crops and winner of fertile lands .
  • They cultivated barley (yava).

Craft Production

  • Rig Veda mentions artisans such as carpenters, chariot-makers, weavers and leather-workers.
  • Weaving of clothes of cotton and wool is also mentioned.
  • Copper metallurgy was one of the important developments of this period.
  • Word Ayas occur in many contexts like Indira’s thunderbolt of Ayas , Agni compared to edge of Ayas etc.  . But it is not clear which metal these objects were made of . Some scholars  interpreted Ayas as Iron artefacts which is not true as Early Rig Vedic Age was chalcolithic in nature .  Ayas could have meant copper, bronze or may be general term for metals .

No notion of private property

  • Notion of private property ownership didn’t exist . Clan as whole enjoyed rights over major resources like land & herds .


  • Although trading activities were limited but traders referred to as ‘Panis’ were present during the Early Vedic period. 
  • Coinage system was not developed and most of the trade was carried in Barter.


  • Bullock carts, horses and horse-drawn chariots were used for transport.
  • There are references to the sea (samudra) and boats (nau) indicating riverine transportation as well.

No formal taxation system

  • There was no regular revenue system although Rig Veda mentions the voluntary gifts (bali) received by Rajan from the members of clan . 
  • War booty was major source of wealth .


  • Rig Vedic Aryans worshiped the natural forces like earth, fire, wind, rain and thunder i.e. Rig Veda reflects Naturalistic Polytheism. They personified these natural forces into many gods and worshipped them. The important Rig Vedic gods were Indra (thunder) ,Agni (Fire),  Prithvi (Earth),  Vayu (Wind) and Varuna (Rain) .
  • Religion followed by the Early Rig Vedic people was ‘sacrificial’ in nature. Animal sacrifice is way to kill older animals with no economic utility and lessen the burden on their owner.
  • Indra was the most important and most frequently invoked god in Rig Veda . 250 Rig Vedic hymns are attributed to him. He was vigorous & strong , great warrior . His weapon was thunderbolt (Vajra)  & he led Aryas to victory in Battles . He loved to drink Soma . The most important  myth associated with him was his win over serpent demon Vritra who was hiding water. Indra finally killed him with his Thunderbolt & released the water. According to (historian) DD Kosambi, these stories originated from the clashes between Aryan Tribes whose chief was envisaged as Indra and Non-Vedic original settlers and breaking of agricultural dams built by these settlers.
  • Next in importance was Agni who was regarded as an intermediary between the gods and people.
  • Varuna who personified water was supposed to be the upholder of the natural order.
  • There were female gods like Aditi and Ushas as well.
  • There were no temples and no idol worship during the early Vedic period.

Part 2 : Later Vedic Period (1000 – 600 BC)

  • The Later Vedic culture is dated to the period between 1000 BCE and 700–600 BCE.  The Satapatha Brahmana refers to the expansion of Aryans to the eastern Gangetic plains
  • The Painted Grey Ware Culture of  the Iron Age is associated with the Later Vedic culture.
  • The Aryan speakers expanded till Ganga-Yamuna doab in the Later Vedic period.
  • The Bharatas and Purus, the two major tribes, combined and thus formed the Kuru people.  Soon the Kurus occupied Delhi and the upper reaches of the doab, the area called Kurukshetra or the land of the Kurus. Gradually they coalesced with a people called the Panchalas who occupied the central part of the doab. The authority of the Kuru–Panchalas people spread over Delhi ,and the upper and central parts of the doab. They set up their capital at Hastinapur situated in Meerut district. The history of the Kuru tribe is important for the battle of Bharata, which is the principal theme of the great epic called the Mahabharata. This war is supposed to have been fought around 950 BC between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Since both of them belonged to the Kuru clan, as a result of war virtually the whole of the Kuru clan was wiped out.
Later Vedic Period

Political Organization

Larger Kingdoms

  • Later Vedic people led a settled life leading to formation of territorial units.
  • Larger kingdoms were formed during the later Vedic period. Many Jana or tribes were amalgamated to form Janapadas.
  • The wars were no longer fought for cows, but for territories.

Hereditary Kings

  • Hereditary Kingship was emerging & Shatapatha Brahmanas refer to kingdom of 10 generations
  • In absence of firmly established principles of heredity & primogeniture, rituals became  important for  ruler to assert his authority. Ceremonial sacrifices like Rajasuya (consecration ceremony), Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) and Vajpeya (chariot race) were performed on lavish scale and were thought to give  Super-Human status to chiefs , legitimising their rules.


  • Taxes were not yet formally collected although Bali  was possibly acquiring an obligatory character.
  • The king received voluntary or compulsory contribution called Bali from the people .


  • Although well developed bureaucracy was still absent but number of officials increased than Early Vedic Culture.  Some of the officials include
    1. Purohita : Chief Priest
    2. Charioteer or Suta : Companion of Raja in his exploits & who narrate tales of valour on a number of occasions.
    3. Senani : Leader of the Army
    4. Sangrahitr : Associated with gathering resources.
  • At the lower level, the administration was possibly run by village chief called Gramini.
  • Even in later Vedic times the king did not have a standing army. Tribal units were mustered in times of war .

Reduced powers of Sabha and Samiti

  • Sabha & Samiti continued to exist but with increase in power of king , power of these assemblies decreased.
  • Membership was also reduced to chiefs and rich nobles, and women were no longer permitted to sit in the Sabha .

Social Conditions

Varna Hierarchy

  • Purushasukta Hymn in Book 10 of Rig Veda for the first time refers to 4 social groups – Brahmana , Rajanya (or Kshatriya) , Vaishya & Shudra  .  Varnas are described as being created at same time as that of earth , sky , sun & moon indicated this was considered a part of natural & eternal order of world .
  • The two higher classes – Brahmana and Kshatriya enjoyed privileges that were denied to the Vaisya and Sudra.
  • The concept of dvija (twice-born) developed and the upanayana (sacred thread) was limited to the upper sections of the society. This ceremony marked the initiation for education. The fourth varna was denied this privilege and the Gayatri mantra could not be recited by the Sudras. Women were also denied upanayana and Gayatri mantra
  • Although there is no indication of practice of untouchability but in later Vedic texts groups like Chandalas were looked upon with contempt by elites . In Chandogaya  Upanishad ,  they are described as victims to be offered in symbolic Purushamedha (human sacrifices) & dedicated to deity Vayu (wind) suggesting they lived in open air .

Position of woman

  • Position of woman started to deteriorate compared to the Early Vedic Period corroborated by following facts
    1. Women lost their political rights of attending assemblies.
    2. Child marriages became common.
    3. According to Aitreya Brahmana, a daughter has been described as a source of misery.
    4. Polygyny became frequent.
    5. Society became strictly patrilineal and patriarchal .
    1. Atharva Veda contains charms for changing a female foetus into a male one .
  • But at some places, Women were  praised & exalted in  in later Vedic texts . For instance
    • Shatapatha Brahmana states that  wife is half the other half of her husband & completed him .
    • A few women like Gargi & Maitreyi  participated in the philosophical debate with Upanishadic Sages .
    • Vishpala was a women warrior who lost a leg in battle  but such references were far apart & minuscule .

Nature of Household

  • Household was called  Griha which was under the control of husband called Grihapati.
  •  Griha had three components: a patni,  cattle  and sons.


  • Apupa was the cake mixed with ghee .
  • Milk products were consumed.
  • Meat was eaten on special occasion like honouring guests .
  • There are references of intoxicants like Sura .
  • Soma plant become difficult to obtain . Hence, substitutes were allowed .

Economic Conditions

Use of Iron

  • Earliest references to iron  found are  during Later Vedic Period
    • Term Krishna Ayas in Yajur Veda & Atharva Veda  refers to Iron.
    • Taittariya Samhita   mentions ploughs driven by 6 or even 12 oxen (made of iron) .
  • Iron was used extensively in this period and this enabled the people to clear forests and to bring more land under cultivation.  Iron is believed to have played an important role in the conversion of the forests of the Ganga Valley into agricultural lands.


  • Agriculture became the chief occupation as iron helped to clear the forests.
  • Improved types of implements were used for cultivation.
  • Satapatha Brahmana mentions rituals related to ploughing.  The god Balarama is depicted with a plough, which suggests the importance of cultivation.
  • Besides barley , rice and wheat were grown.

Property rights

  • Land was owned and occupied by extended families .

Craft Production

  • Arts and crafts proliferated during the Later Vedic age and craft specialization took deep roots.
  • Metal work like iron and copper became important.  Weaving was undertaken by women. Leatherwork, pottery and carpentry were well known.
  • Bow makers, rope makers, arrow makers, hide dressers, stone breakers, physicians, goldsmiths and astrologers are some of the specialized professional groups mentioned in the texts.


  • Vaisyas  carried on trade and commerce. They organized themselves into guilds known as ganas.
  • No evidence of coins has been found and therefore barter must have been the medium of exchange. The introduction of coins took place after about 600 BCE.


  • Gods of the Early Vedic period like Indra and Agni lost their importance. Prajapati (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Rudra (the destroyer) became prominent during the Later Vedic period.
  • Sacrifices  became  very elaborate. The importance of prayers declined and that of sacrifices increased.  It was believed that sacrifices could solve many problems.  The correct performance of sacrifices was stressed. Stress was laid on paying dakshina to the Brahmins performing the sacrifices.
  • The rise of Buddhism and Jainism and upanishadic philosophy within hinduism was the direct result of reaction to these elaborate sacrifices. Upanishads stress the importance of realising the atman or inner self and heterodox faiths such as Buddhism and Jainism  emphasized on correct human behaviour and discipline.

Harappan Civilisation

Harappan Civilisation

This article deals with ‘Harappan Civilisation’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


  • Indus Valley Civilisation represents the first phase of urbanisation in India contemporaneous with the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt
  • This civilisation did not appear all of a sudden. It developed gradually on the foundations provided by Neolithic villages in the area.  For example, Neolithic villages in this region go back to about 7000 BCE at the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh.
  • It is known by various names like
    1. Indus Valley Civilization : It was mainly spread in valley of Indus and it’s tributaries.
    2. Harappan Civilization  : As Harappa was the first site of this civilisation to be discovered.

Area of spread

  • Civilization was spread over nearly 1.5 million sq. km area.
  • Its core area was in the regions of Pakistan, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
  • It is spread between
    1. Sutkagen-dor (on Pakistan-Iran border) in the west 
    2. Manda (Jammu and Kashmir) in the north
    3. Alamgirpur (Uttar Pradesh, India) in the east
    4. Daimabad (Maharashtra, India) in the south 

Phases of Harappan Civilisation

Harappan civilisation is dated between c. 2600 and 1900 BC. There were earlier and later cultures, often called Early Harappan and Late Harappan. The Harappan civilisation is sometimes called the Mature Harappan culture to distinguish it from these cultures.

Early Harappan 3000 to 2600 BCE It is known as ‘Period of Regionalisation‘. It was proto-urban formative phase . Settlements had fortifications and craft specialisation started to develop. But large cities were absent. 
Mature Harappan 2600 to 1900 BCE It is known as ‘Period of Integration ‘. It was full fledged Urban phase. Settlements were large and high degree of craft specialisation was reached.
Late Harappan 1900 to 1700 BCE It is known as ‘Period of Localisation‘. It was post-urban phase . Settlements were small , more in number but rural in character. Single Harappan Culture fragmented to 3local phases
1. West Punjab Phase (Cemetery- H Culture)
2. Jhukar Phase Rangpur Phase
3. Ganga Yamuna Doab Phase

Note : The urban phase was prevalent in the mature Harappan period and began to decline afterwards.

Town Planning

1 . Planned Towns

  • Harappan Cities were well planned .   
  • There was Grid Pattern of streets cutting each other at right angles . The streets were wide enough for too and fro movement of traffic.
  • City was divided into two distinct parts i.e.
    • Citadel : Small , higher &  fortified (walled) which housed important  buildings like Granaries, Great Bath etc.
    • Lower Town : Bigger , lower and separately walled housing common public .  
  • Since the city was walled, it meant that once the wall was built, it couldn’t be expanded. It corroborates the fact that city was first planned and then built according to the plan.

2 . Fortified Towns

  • Harappan cities were fortified
  • These fortifications could have served following purposes :-
    • Protection from attacks .
    • Exclude outsiders  .
    • Helps  to control activities inside the fortification.
    • If traders bring goods from places faraway they can demand share for allowing  access to potential buyers inside

3 . Impressive drainage system

  • It was the most complete ancient drainage system  seen in any ancient civilization.   Perhaps no other Bronze civilization paid such emphasis on health and cleanliness as Harappans.
  • Every house was connected to street drains.
  • Main channels were made of bricks set in mortar and  covered with loose bricks that could be removed for cleaning. House drains first emptied into a sump or cesspit into which solid matter settled while waste water flowed out into the street drains.
  • Drainage systems were not unique to the larger cities, but were found in smaller settlements  as  well. 

4 . Extensive use of standardised baked bricks

  • Size of bricks was uniform (ratio = 4:2:1).
  • Standardised size of bricks indicate that brick making was organised on large scale.
  • Various brick laying techniques were used including ENGLISH BOND STYLE (for maximum strength).
  • Note : In contemporary Egyptian Culture, dried bricks were used . Although, baked bricks were used in Mesopotamia but they were used much widely in Harappan culture.

5 . Houses

  • People lived in houses of different sizes showing that stratification was present in the society.
  • Staircases were present in some houses which might have led to roof .
  • Although most of houses were single storied . But two and three storied houses were also present.
  • Floors were made of high packed earth. 
  • Small houses attached to large ones might have been quarters of service groups  .
  • Toilets & Bathrooms : Houses  had separate bathing & toilet areas . Floor of these was made of tightly fitted bricks .
  • Houses were without much decoration showing utilitarian outlook of Harappan people .

Crafts and Techniques

  • Harappans mass – produced standardised items.
  • Some were quintessentially Indus, i.e. they are neither found prior to the advent of civilization nor after its collapse. Eg : Indus seals .

1 . Harappan Pottery

  • Harappan Pottery reflects efficient mass production .
  • Features of typical Harappan Pottery were
    • Harappan pottery was well baked .
    • Harappan Pottery was made with potter’s wheel.
    • Pottery has bright red slip decorated with black designs .
    • Shapes – There was great variety of shapes like pots,  large Jars  (to store grains or water), flattish dishes (used as plates), perforated jars (use not clear) etc.
    • Decorative designs on pottery includefish scales, pipal leaves , horned deity , intersecting circles, zig-zag lines  etc.
Harappan Pottery

2 . Copper Objects

  • Harappan civilisation was a ‘Bronze Age civilisation’ and Harappans knew how to make copper and bronze tools. They did not have the knowledge of iron.
  • Harappans used pure copper as well as  copper alloyed  with Arsenic , Tin or Nickel .
  • Artefacts include vessels , spears, knives, short swords, mirrors , rings & bangles etc.
  • With time %age of bronze increases.

Side Topic : Dancing Girl

  • Most of metal objects found are Utilitarian .
  • Most important Non-Utilitarian Copper Object excavated from Harappan Civilization is Dancing Girl found at Mohenjodaro .
  • It was made using   LOST WAX TECHNIQUE  .
  • Features of Dancing Girl
    • She is standing in Tribhanga posture .
    • She is naked .
    • She is wearing a necklace, 24-25 bangles in left arm & just 4 on right arm .
  • John Marshall called it DANCING GIRL (thought her to be equivalent of Nautch Girl dancing on music) . Although name struck , but she might not have been dancing at all .
Dancing Girl

3 . Seals

  • Use of seals was to facilitate long distance communication. They might have been used
    • For stamping on bag’s rope knot .
    • Insignia / images on seal conveyed the identity of sender.
  • Seals were square or rectangular .
  • Average size of square seal was 2.54 cm  .
  • Material used  –  Steatite  
  • Carvings are in intaglio ie sunken engravings with impression appearing in relief
  • Motifs on seals include elephant, tiger, humped bull, rhinoceros , one horned  unicorn etc.
  • Most seals have short inscription.     The longest inscription has about twenty six signs.
Seals of Harappan Civilsation

4 . Beads and Bangle making

  • This craft was known in earlier cultures too but Harappans  used new materials and better techniques 


  • Material used included Steatite, Carnelian , Lapis Lazuli ,etc.
  • Harappan long barrel cylinder carnelian  beads were  so beautiful that they are found in royal burials of Mesopotamia.
  • Main centres of Bead making were  Chanhudaro & Lothal . Bead making tradition in Gujarat today give us clue on how Harappan craftsmen might have made beads
Carnelian Beads


  • Bangles were often made from conch shell .
  • Nageshwar (near Jamnagar) and Balakot , situated near the coast, were  exclusively devoted to Bangle making from shell .
  • Dancing girl found at Mohenjo-Daro is shown wearing bangles in large numbers .
Bangles of Harappan Civilisation

Water Management System

Harappan sewage & drainage was far more advanced than any other  found in contemporary urban sites in the Middle East.

Sewage  System

  • Every house was connected to street drains.
  • Main channels  was made of bricks set in mortar and was covered with loose bricks that could be removed for cleaning.
  • House drains emptied into cesspit where solid matter settled and waste water flowed into street drains

Water Management in various cities

Mohenjodaro Almost all houses had private wells (700 wells found in city).
– It also had the Great Bath  .
Lothal It had port  with a dockyard .
Dholavira – System of water management was architectural marvel .
– Two seasonal streams – Manhar and Mansar – was dammed and diverted to the large reservoirs within the city walls . It had  16 water reservoirs  covering as much as 36 % of the walled area. 
Shortughai – Canal for irrigation brought water from nearby Kokcha river .
The Great Bath (Mohenjo daro) 
Water Wells (Lothal)


  • Harappans were producing enough food to sustain urban population which was engaged in activities other than agriculture. Their subsistence base was wide and diverse as it was situated on alluvial plains , mountains , plateaus & sea coasts .
  • Today the rainfall in Sindh is about 15 cm, but in the fourth century BCE , one of the historians of Alexander informs us, that Sindh was a fertile part of India. In earlier times, the Indus region had more natural vegetation which contributed to rainfall. Along with that , annual inundation of Indus made the region very fertile. Just as the Nile created Egypt and ​supported its people, so too the Indus created Sindh and fed its people
  • Crops : Harappans cultivated diverse crops such as
    • Wheat
    • Barley
    • Lentil
    • Chickpea
    • Sesame
    • various millets
    • Note : although rice husk has been found at sites like Rangpur but it wasn’t the main crop of Harappan civilisation.
  • Cotton : Cotton was cultivated in Harappan civilisation . Following evidences prove this fact
    • Figurines wearing clothes (eg : Priest King, Mother Goddess).
    • Mesopotamian texts state that cotton was important import from Meluha .
  • Ploughing :  Harappans used ploughs. They ploughed the land and then sowed the seeds increasing the agricultural output. Ploughed fields have been found at Kalibangan. Terracotta models of the plough have been found at at Banawali (Haryana).
  • Irrigation : Most Harappan sites are located in semi-arid lands, where irrigation was probably required for agriculture. Harappans built embankments and dams for irrigation. For example :-
    • Irrigation canals have been found at Shortughai .
    • Water drawn from wells was also used for irrigation.
    • Water reservoirs found in Dholavira (Gujarat).

Animal Domestication

  • Animals were domesticated by the Harappans for meat, milk and draught purposes.
  • They domesticated  sheep, goat, buffalo , fowl etc.
  • They also ate fish . In states like Gujarat, Molluscs were widely consumed. Marine catfish bones have been found at Harappa showing coastal community traded in dried fish  .
  • Evidence from seals show region also housed humped bulls, rhinoceros, ibexes , boar, deer and gharial .
  • Issue of Horse is controversial
    • Horse remains have been reported from  Harappa , Lothal, Surkotda & Kalibangan . But analysis of bones is questioned by other scholars .  
    • In any case, the Harappan culture was not horse-centered. Representation of horse has not been found  on seals or pottery .
    • For UPSC exam, we can say that horse was not known to them.

Trade and Exchange

  • Harappans did not use metal money, and in all probability carried exchanges through a barter system.
  • Two types of trade was going on
External Trade With Mesopotamia & Persian Gulf
Internal Trade Between different Harappan sites and various other cultures of India .

External Trade

  • Evidences showing External Trade are as follows
    1. Harappan seals and materials  found in the Sumerian and Mesopotamian sites as well as  in Oman, Bahrain and Iran.
    2. Mesopotamian  inscriptions mention the trade between Mesopotamia and Harappans. The mention of “Meluha” in the Mesopotamian  inscriptions refers to the Indus region.
  • Important exports were
    • Carnelian beads – found even in Mesopotamian Royal Graves
    • Textile – Mesopotamian Records of King Sargon mention this
    • Ivory & Ivory objects 
    • Lapis Lazuli,Gold, Silver , copper, tortoiseshell , chicken like bird
  • Import imports were
    • Fish, grain , wool, woollen garments & silver from Mesopotamia

Internal Trade

  • Harappans also interacted with various regions of India and acquired raw materials and processed them.
  • These regions were as follows
Copper Khetri deposits in Rajasthan
Tin Tosam area of Haryana
Gold Kolar mines of Karnataka
Most semi precious stones except Lapis Lazuli Gujarat
Lapis Lazuli Shortughai in Afghanistan 

Weights and Measures

  • Harappans had developed proper weights and measures. Since they were involved in commercial transactions, they needed standard measures.
  • Cubical weights made of chert, chalcedony, black stone etc. have been found at excavated sites.
  • Weights exhibit a binary system. The ratio of weight is doubled as 1:2:4:8:16:32.
  • They also used a measuring scale in which one inch was around 1.75 cm. Sticks inscribed with measure marks have been found, and one of these is made of bronze.

Faiths and Belief System

Harappan people had wide faiths and belief systems.

1 . Nature worship

  • Harappan seals, sealings, amulets & copper tablets depict number of trees , plants & animals . Some might have cultic significance as well and these include
    • Pipal (Ficus Religosa) 
    • Bull which is symbol of male virility . Seal from Chanhu-daro depict a bull bison with erect penis, fecundating a supine human figure. 
    • One horned animal probably Unicorn.
    • Composite animals like Tiger-Human. Conception of composite gods like Narsimha can be traced back to this .

2 . Mother Goddess

  • Worship of female goddesses is historically associated with fertility  .
  • Mother Goddess is slim female with  fan shaped headdress & wearing short skirt . She is heavily ornamented with necklaces and  earrings. 
The Mother Goddess

3 . Proto Shiva

  • Harappans also worshipped male god represented on  seal discovered at Mohenjodaro known as Pashupati Seal. The god is surrounded by an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros, and below his throne there is a buffalo, and at his feet two deer.
  • Note : It resembles with Shiva who is Mahayogi (the great yogi) & Pashupati( lord of animals)
Pashupati Seal

4 . Priest King

  • Found at Mohenjo Daro known as Priest king
  • He was called Priest King because archaeologists were familiar with Mesopotamian history and its “priest-kings” .
Priest King

5 . Fire Alters

  • Citadel at Kalibangan consists of  fire alters where offerings were made into fire.
  • Fire Alters have also been reported at Banawali, Lothal, Amri & Rakhigarhi .
  • Fire ritual was central to Vedic religion . These evidences indicate that Aryans might have adopted this from Harappans when they came & settled down in these areas .

6 . The Great Bath

  • The Great Bath found at Mohenjodaro might have  religious significance as well.
  • The Great Bath was a large rectangular tank with two staircases  on the north and south leading into the tank. There were rooms on three sides, in one of which was a large well. Water from the tank flowed into Great Bath . Across  a lane to the north lay a smaller building with eight bathrooms. The uniqueness of the structure and fact that it was found on citadel  led scholars to suggest that it was meant for some kind of a special ritual bath.
The Great Bath

Burial Systems

  • Harappans buried the dead.
  • The Harappan burials have grave goods in the form of pottery, ornaments, jewellery, copper mirrors and beads. This suggest their belief in an afterlife.
  • Compared with other civilisations, it can be said that on the whole, it appears that the Harappans did not believe in burying precious things with the dead.
  • Note : Although Harappans buried their dead but Harappan civilisation hasn’t yielded a monument for the dead which could equal Pyramids of Egypt or Royal Cemetery of  Ur .

Nature of Writing

  • The biggest mystery  about the Harappans is which language(s) they spoke.
  • Harappan script consists of 400-450 basic signs.
  • Harappan script was pictographic in nature (i.e. picture used to represent a word).   
  • It was written from right to left corroborated by the fact that some seals show a wider spacing on the right and cramping on the left. 
  • Although larger inscriptions were rare. In large inscriptions , they followed Boustrophedon Style (i.e. first line in right to left , then next line in left to right)
  • Nature of Language 
    • Some scholars argue that Harappan script and language belonged to Dravidian family . Father Heras  was strong advocate of this view . He argued that Brahui , language  still spoken in this region , belongs to Dravidian family .
    • Others historians believe that  it belonged to Indo-Aryan languages .
    • Yet others believe that it belonged to the Sumerian language.
  • Harappan script has not been deciphered yet .  Mortimer Wheeler writes the conditions requisite for the interpretation of the script are (1) bilingual inscriptions with known language and (2) long inscription with significant recurrent features . Both these conditions aren’t present in Harappan inscriptions.

Nature of Polity

State was present in Harappan Civilisation . Following things prove the existence of state

  1. Uniform culture over such a large area wasn’t possible without central authority.
  2. Granaries at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa where surplus was collected and stored , most probably by the rulers.
  3. Control of labour  as indicated by elaborate drainage system, citadels and public buildings which were made by mobilising labour on large scale.   
  4. Standardisation  , site specialisation  and establishment of trading outpost at Shortughai .
  5. Common system of writing across wide area .
  6. FORTIFICATIONS  especially imposing ones like Dholavira, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
  7. We have no clear idea of an organized force or standing army, but a heap of sling stones and the depiction of a soldier on a potsherd at Surkotda may suggest a standing army.
  8. Harappan civilisation lasted for 700 years &  artefacts continued unaltered which suggests strong political stability . 

Side Topic : A Priest King 

  • In ancient Mesopotamian & Egyptian civilisations,  rulers were portrayed extensively in stone reliefs & sculptures to proclaim their power . But Harappan case is strikingly different because here no such things have been found .
  • Taking view from Egypt & Meso Civilisation , stone bust of Male found at Mohenjodaro is given label of  Priest King . However whether he represent priest or king or both is far from certain.
Priest King

Contemporary Cultures of the Harappan Civilisation

  • While the Indus Civilisation was flourishing in the north-western part of India, several cultures were developing in different parts of India..


  • Kashmir was under Neolithic culture during this phase. Sites like Burzahom belong to this phase.

Deccan and Western India

  • Chalcolithic cultures were prevalent in Deccan and western India.
  • Chalcolithic culture in the form of Ganeshwar-Jodhpura culture was prevalent in Rajasthan. Harappans imported copper from here (Khetri copper mines).

South India

  • Kerala and Sri Lanka were still under  hunting and gathering phase.
  • Northern part of South India, i.e. the Karnataka and Andhra region, had Neolithic cultures, engaged in pastoralism and plough agriculture.
  • Harappans used to send expeditions to South India to import gold especially from region surrounding Kolar gold fields.

Morphology of Harappan Cities

Harappan Civilisation

1 . Mohenjo Daro

Region Sindh (Pakistan)
River Indus
Excavator RD Banerji (1922)
Important points It was the second site to be discovered after Harappa.
It was spread over area of 125 Hectare  and at it’s peak , used to house population of around 35,000.
Important things excavated here includes
1. Great Bath
2. College of Priests
3. Granary
4. Large Pillared Hall
5. Dancing Girl
6. Pashupati Seal
7. Superficial evidence of horse (although refuted by many historians)
8. Model of ship/large boat

Problem  – water levels in Mohenjodaro has risen high . As a result, it is  not possible to determine whether early Harappan levels were present  

2. Harappa

Region Punjab (Pakistan)
River Ravi
Excavator Rai Bahadur Dayaram Sahni (1921)
Important points It was the first site to be discovered .
Important things excavated here include
1. 6 Granaries
2. Cemetery H with urn-burials
3. Large number of wells
4. All other Harappan features like Citadel, sewage system, fortification etc.
Issue : most of the citadel buildings was already destroyed (bricks used in railways &  robbed by brick  robbers). Clear profile of main citadel is lacking  .

3. Kalibangan

Region Ganganagar district of Rajasthan (India)
River Ghaggar
Excavator Amalanand Ghosh (1953) and BK Thakur (1961)
Important points – Get its name from the thick cluster of black bangles lying all over  mounds .
Important things excavated here include
1. Fire Alters – Interpreted as sacrificial pits 
2. Ploughed fields – first of its kind in history 
3. Black bangles
It wasn’t as well developed as Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Lower town didn’t have well developed drainage system.
It survived till 1800 BCE when Ghaggar river completely dried up 

4. Lothal

Region Near  Khambat in Gujarat
River Between Sabarmati river & its tributary Bhogavo
Excavator SR Rao (1957)
Important points It was a sea-port .
Although , not big in size but it was economically important .
Important things excavated here include
1. Huge basin / dockyard to dock ships .
2. Evidence of rice husk .
3. Evidence of double burial i.e. man and woman buried together.
4. Fire altars
5. Bead factory

5. Dholavira

Region Kadir Island in Gujarat (Rann of Kutch)
Excavator JP Joshi (1990)
Important point It was a large city spanned over 160 hectares.
It is one of the newest site to be excavated.
Important things excavated here includes
1. Extensive use of stone (instead of bricks).
2. 16 water reservoirs within the walls of city covering 36% of walled area.
3. Largest number of inscriptions have been found here.

6. Chanhudaro

Region Near Mohenjodaro in Sind (Pakistan)
River Indus
Excavator NG Mazumdar (1931)
Important point It is a small settlement spread in just 7 hectares .
Important things excavated here includes
1. It was important craft centre devoted to bead-making, shell-cutting, metal-working, seal-making and weight-making. 
2. It is the only Harappan site without fortifications.  

7. Rakhigarhi

Region Hissar district of Haryana (India)
River Ghaggar
Important points It was large city  spread over 350 hectares.
Important things excavated here includes
1. Fire altars like those found at Kalibangan.
2. Redware similar to Dancing Girl.  

8. Banawali

Region Hissar district of Haryana (India)
River Rangoi
Excavator RS Bist (1970s)
Important points Important things excavated here includes
1. Barley of high quality.
2. Fire altars
3. Terracotta model of plough  

9. Ropar

Region Punjab (India)
River Sutlej
Excavator YD Sharma (1955)
Important points It was a small site.
Important things excavated here includes
1. Harappan seals
2. Cemetery where dead were buried.
3. Burial where man was buried with dog.  

10 . Rangpur

Region Near Lothal in Gujarat
River Madar
Excavator MS Vatsa (1931)
Important point Rice husk found here is important finding .

11. Surkotda

Region Gujarat
Excavator JP Joshi
Important point Bones of horse have been excavated from this site.

12. Suktagendor

Region Baluchistan (Pakistan) on Iran-Pakistan border
River Dasht
Excavator A Stein
Important point It is the western-most site of Harappan civilization .
Port town with trade links with Mesopotamia and Sumeria.

13. Shortughai

Region North-East Afghanistan
River Oxus and Kokcha
Important points It was small site (2 ha).
It was an isolated Harappan site .
Excavations include Pottery with Harappan Designs, Toy carts , Lapis Lazuli , Carnelian , shell bangles  etc.
Ploughed field covered with flax in area unsuitable for farming ( dry farming practiced here) .
Small irrigation canals drawing water from Kokcha .  
Reason for making an isolated site 1. Lapis Lazuli mines nearby
2. Second Possibility –  Tin mines of Afghanistan
3. Third Possibility –  role to play in Camel Trade 

The decline of Harappan Civilization

It was a gradual decline

  • Roughly around 1900 BCE, there is a visible change in the material record.
    • Population seems to have either perished or moved away . Number of settlements in Core Harappan areas decreased but number of settlements in the outlying areas of Gujarat, East Punjab, Haryana and upper Doab increased (explained by the emigration of people from the core regions of Harappan Civilisation to outlying areas) .
    • In few Harappan sites that continued to be occupied after 1900 BCE, Material culture underwent a change – a far smaller, and that too more locally exploited raw materials was utilized . There was disappearance of  weights, seals, special beads, writing, long-distance trade, and craft specialisation .

Overall, artefacts and settlements indicate a rural way of life in what are called “Late Harappan”

  • Mesopotamian literature stops referring to Meluha by the end of 1900 BCE . 

Many theories are given for the decline of Harappan Civilisation by various scholars

Reason 1: Aryan Invasion

  • Theory was given by Ramaprasad Chanda in 1926 but elaborated by Mortimer Wheeler .
  • References to various kinds of forts of Dasas & Dasyus,  attacks on fortified cities & epithet Puramdara (fort destroyer) given to Indra reflect invasion of Aryans on Harappan cities .
  • Rig Veda mentions a place called Hariyupiya located on the bank of  Ravi where Aryans fought a battle . Name of the place sounds very similar to that of Harappa. Based on this, Wheeler concluded that it was the Aryan invaders who destroyed the city. 

Arguments against this theory

  • Historians like George Dale & BB Lal argue that  Rig Veda is a religious text of uncertain date & taking it as evidence on face value is not correct .
  • Harappans & Aryans are unlikely to have met each other. Harappan Civilisation declined around 1900 BCE whereas Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BCE.
  • No evidences of military assault have been found . Earlier Deadman Lane Theory of John Marshall has been discarded . Deadman lane is a street in Mohenjodaro where dead-bodies of 17 people were excavated. But later it was found that they didn’t belong to same period.  No bodies of warriors clad in armour and surrounded by the weapons of war have been found. The citadel, the only fortified part of the city, yielded no evidence of a final defence.

Reason 2 : Fall in Mesopotamian Trade

  • There was sudden end of long distance land and sea trade with Mesopotamia. Trade in luxurious items like lapis lazuli, beads etc. passed through Elam (located on eastern border of Mesopotamia) . In 2000 BC, Elam emerged as powerful state impacting Harappan exports to Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian Imports including tin to Harappa. Decline of trade led to decline of Harappan Civilisation as well.

Reason 3 : Raike’s Hypothesis – Floods 

  • RL Raikes was  famous hydrologist .
  • He believes that the Harappan civilization declined because of catastrophic flooding. But such flooding which could drown buildings 30 feet was not  result of normal flooding .  Geomorphologically ,  the Indus area is a disturbed seismic zone. Earthquakes might have raised the level of the flood plains of the lower Indus river along an axis roughly at right angles . This led to the ponding of the waters of the river Indus.

Reason 4 : Shifting away of Indus

  • Indus was  unstable river system which altered its course many times . 
  • River Indus shifted about 30 miles away from Mohenjodaro. People deserted the area because they were starved of water
  • But this cannot explain the decline of the Harappan civilization in totality. At best, it can explains the desertion of Mohenjodaro. 

Reason 5 : Drying up of Ghaggar

  • Ghaggar-Hakra area represented one of the core regions of Harappan  civilization. Ghaggar was a mighty stream . Rivers Sutlej and Yamuna used to be the tributaries of this river. Because of some tectonic disturbances, the Sutlej stream was captured by the Indus river and the Yamuna shifted east to join the Ganges. This kind of change in the river regime, which left the Ghaggar waterless, would have catastrophic implication for the towns located in this area.

Reason 6 : Increased Aridity

  • This theory was given by DP Aggarwal & Sood .
  • Basing their conclusions on the studies conducted in the U.S.A., Australia and Rajasthan , they have shown that there was an increase in the arid conditions by the middle of the second millennium B.C. In semi-arid regions like those of the Harappa, even a minor reduction in moisture and water availability could spell disaster. It would affect agricultural production which in turn would put the city economies under stress.

Reason 7 : Ecological Imbalance

  • “Harappans were over-exploiting their environment through over-cultivation, over-grazing, and excessive cutting of trees for fuel and farming. This would have resulted in decreasing soil fertility, floods, and increasing soil salinity.”
  • Deforestation was carried out on large scale for fuel to make bricks. Deforestation also reduced the rainfall in the area.
  • To sustain the city population, agriculture was to be done on large scale decreasing the soil fertility . Exhaustion of the soil may have diminished cereal production and starved the urban people.
  • Gradual movement away to other areas was already happening so as to reduce the pressure on the limited land. Harappan communities moved towards Gujarat and eastern areas, away from the Indus.

Localisation Phase

  • Debate on Terminology : Late Harappan vs Post Harappan
    • Those historians who are in favour of decline of Harappan Civilisation prefer to call it Post Harappan Civilisation .
    • Whereas those who argue for Transformation of Harappan Civilisation call it Late Harappan. Later Harappan terminology is preferred by most historians now a days.
  • Scholars working on the Indus civilization no longer look for the causes of its decline  because of the fact that the scholars who studied the Harappan civilization right upto the 1960s believed that the collapse of the civilization was sudden. It was towards the end of the 1960s  that scholars like Malik and Possehl focused their attention on various aspects of continuity of  Harappan tradition
  • Archaeologically speaking some changes are observable-
    • Some of the settlements were abandoned .
    • Tradition of uniform writing, seals, weights and pottery was lost.
    • Objects showing intensive interaction among the far flung settlements were lost.

In other words the activities associated with city-centred economies were given up.

  • But there was continuity as well.
  • Three prominent cultures which came after Mature Harappan Phase declined & Localisation Phase started were
    1. Cemetery H
    2. Jhukar/Late Kulli
    3. Rangpur 
Late Phase of Indus Valley  Civilisation

1 . Cemetery H

  • Cemetery H is a site in Harappa . Here, large Urn Burials dateable to Post Urban Culture were found.
  • Dated from 1900-1300 BCE.
  • Cemetery H Culture had Black on Red pottery with similar shapes of pottery as that of Mature Harappan Culture  , although motifs on pottery differed .

2. Late Kulli / Jhukar

  • Found in Southern Sindh, ChanhuDaro , Jhukar etc .
  • Some of typical Harappan elements like Stamp Seals continued but it was made of Terracotta or Faience .
  • They were still staying in brick houses but they gave up the planned lay out.

3. Rangpur

  • Found in Gujarat . Main sites were Rangpur & Lothal & Prabhas Patan (Somnath) .
  • There were fewer number of sites and settlements were smaller.
  • They were using ‘Lustrous Redware’ characterised by bright & burnished slipped surface.

This marks the end of our article on ‘Harappan Civilisation’ .